Omicron was recently identified as the latest “variant of concern” which could soon become the dominant Covid strain around the world.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has confirmed that it still needs more data to truly understand how transmissible this strain of the virus is, how severe its symptoms can be and how effective the vaccines will be against it.
Although it is still too early to have a clear picture, early research appears to have provided experts with a little insight into how the kind of impact the new variant might have on the pandemic.
Is Omicron more transmissible?
There are concerns that the new variant could be more transmissible than the Delta variant, which is currently the dominant strain around the world.
Dr Maria von Kerkhove from WHO said there is an early suggestion that it can be passed from person to person more easily compared to other Covid strains.
She added: “It is certainly possible that the virus, as it continues to evolve, may still have a fitness advantage, meaning that it could become more transmissible. More transmissible than Delta? We’ll have to see.”
There has been a sustained increase in cases in Gauteng, the South African province where Omicron was first identified. This increase in cases is much steeper than seen when Delta first took over the country, which suggests the strain is more transmissible.
However, not everyone agrees.
South African professor Anne von Gottberg from the National institute for Communicable Disease told WHO that Omicron does not seem to be any more contagious than Delta.
She instead believes that “the susceptibility of the population is greater”, as previous Covid antibodies don’t seem to protect people from this strain. It’s worth noting only 24.6% of people in South Africa are fully vaccinated.
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) December 2, 2021
How severe are the symptoms?
Omicron is believed to trigger extreme fatigue, body aches and headaches but not the loss of taste or smell and no drop in oxygen levels as seen in previous variants. Others have flagged dry coughs, fever and night sweats as other potential symptoms of the new variant, too.
WHO’s Dr von Kerkhove said: “We have seen reports of cases with Omicron that go from mild disease all the way to severe disease.
“There is some indication that some of the patients are presenting mild disease, but again, it’s early days.”
“There is some indication that some of the patients are presenting mild disease, but again, it’s early days.”Dr Maria von Kerkhove
She noted that there has been an increase in hospitalisations across South Africa, but this might be due to the high number of cases in the country rather than Omicron.
However, UK scientists from the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) have warned that Omicron could trigger a surge in Covid infections which is larger than previous waves seen in Britain.
They believe Omicron “might have very serious consequences” in the UK and could overwhelm the NHS.
Will the current vaccines work?
WHO noted that the new variant appears to have mutations on the protein spike used to infect people, meaning Omicron could evade the body’s immune response even when it has been boosted by the vaccine.
WHO’s emergency director Dr Mike Ryan also warned that there is no evidence booster jabs will help protect the population against Omicron.
In a push for vaccine equity, he said: “The real risk of severe disease, hospitalisation and death lies in particularly at-risk and vulnerable individuals who do require protection against all variants of Covid-19.”
There are concerns that the antibodies from previous Covid infections may also not provide resistance to the new strain.
Moderna’s CEO Stephane Bancel has also claimed that the current vaccines are unlikely to be effective against Omicron – although people who helped created the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine have claimed their shots will still be effective to an extent.
Should we be worried?
Professor von Gottberg made an important distinction when she said that while antibodies from previous infections may not stop people from contracting the new virus strain, it might be enough to prevent hospitalisation and death.
The WHO has emphasised that for now, people should continue to use the measures which curbed Delta infections for Omicron. to prevent infection altogether.
When will we know more?
The government has introduced three weeks of “temporary and precautionary measures” in England to buy the scientists some time to research Omicron.
The WHO has also promised more data around the new strain will be unveiled in the coming “days, not weeks”.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.