Expert says we are still in the dark about how serious Omicron is and what impact it will have
Northern Ireland experts have urged people not to be overly alarmed by the emergence of a new highly mutated strain of Covid.
The strain, which has reached Belgium after being discovered in South Africa, has been designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organisation.
The WHO warned that preliminary evidence suggests the variant, which it named Omicron, has an increased risk of reinfection and may spread more rapidly than other strains.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there is “huge international concern” after banning flights from six southern African countries to limit its spread.
The six countries have also been put on Northern Ireland’s red list.
Dr Ultan Power, a professor at Queen’s University, said he had been following early data on the transmissibility of the newly discovered variant.
Cases have been identified in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini.
A case was confirmed on Friday in Belgium — the first in Europe, while one case has also been reported in Israel.
There are concerns Covid vaccines may be less effective against this variant, along with its potentially higher transmissibility.
Dr Power told the Belfast Telegraph that given the high number of mutations in this variant, it may render those antibody therapies — such as vaccines — “less effective compared to those at present”.
“It also seems to be transmitting fast. It is very, very early days yet but the way it has taken hold within an area in South Africa is of concern,” he said.
“Within a two-week period it went from one per cent of the positive samples. Today there is some suggestion that it is up to 70% of positive samples.
“That suggests it is out-competing Delta, which is obviously a concern. Again, it’s early days. It’s something that needs to be monitored and taken seriously by the public health authorities and governments.”
Prof Ian Young, Northern Ireland’s chief scientific adviser, said that “based on the early information we have this is probably the most concerning new variant” since the Delta form of the virus.
He said the new B.1.1.529 variant has “a number of changes” compared with forms seen before.
“And those may alter its behaviour in a way that makes it more easily transmitted,” he added.
Meanwhile, chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride described the variant as a “matter of concern”.
“This is undoubtedly a matter of concern. We are taking the action on international travel on a precautionary basis, while we await further evidence on the spread of this variant in South Africa and understand more about it.”
Dr Connor Bamford, a virologist, also insisted it was a case of “wait and see”, adding: “There are still many unknowns and only time will tell how impactful B.1.1.529 is, but to be cautious we should act now to slow it down by bolstering border control and surveillance... and taking the usual measures to control virus spread at home.”
Fellow Queen’s expert Dr Andrew Kunzmann, an epidemiologist, stressed that he didn’t think “people should panic yet, and calm heads are needed”.
“Panic can be counterproductive and just cause people to disengage with the measures that can help to keep them safe,” he explained.
“We don’t yet know enough about the new variant to estimate what impact this will have in Northern Ireland.”
Dr Kunzmann continued: “However, fast action from governments is needed to delay importation of large numbers of cases whilst we try to improve our understanding of the new variant and get more vaccines and boosters to the people who need it.
“Surveillance for new variants is only useful if it leads to swift action when something is flagged.” He admitted that measures such as quarantine for travellers returning from ‘red list’ areas may help “delay” the importing of the strain — along with the vaccination programme – but it is “unlikely to work for ever”.
“It seems likely that vaccines will still offer protection against severe disease, and I’d still recommend anyone who isn’t vaccinated to get vaccinated,” he added.
“However, new variants make it important to keep your immunity as high as possible, so I would encourage anyone who is offered a booster to take up that offer when possible.”