Omicron: Good news, bad news and what it all means
The world is hit by an Omicron tsunami. Scientists, politicians and indeed all of us grapple with what this means for our lives.
Restrictions are tightening in parts of the UK and other European countries to tackle the new variant.
There is a constant flow of new information – some worrying, some positive. So where are we now?
It’s not last winter
It’s easy to forget, but we’re in a much brighter place than around this time last year, when many of us couldn’t meet family on Christmas Day.
The “Christmas bubble” rules meant that in some parts of the country you could only spend the day with those you lived with. But there were limits on the size of rallies across the UK.
The ramp-up of the Alpha variant at the end of 2020 resulted in lockdowns in November and long ones over the New Year as the vaccination program was only just beginning.
The rules currently in place or coming into effect on Boxing Day in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are much milder in comparison.
Omicron is less severe
If you catch Omicron, you are less likely to get seriously ill than with previous variants.
Studies around the world paint a consistent picture that Omicron is milder than the Delta variant, with a 30% to 70% lower chance that those infected will end up in the hospital.
Omicron can cause cold symptoms like a sore throat, runny nose, and headache, but that doesn’t mean that it will be mild for everyone and some will still be seriously ill.
The changes to the virus appear to have made it less dangerous, but most of the reduced severity is due to immunity resulting from the vaccination and previous episodes of Covid.
But Omicron is spreading very fast
The worry is that severity is only half the equation if you care about whether hospitals can cope.
If Omicron is half as likely to send you to the hospital, but twice as many people are infected, the two cancel each other out and you are back to square one.
And Omicron’s real talent is infecting people. It spreads faster than other variants and can bypass some of the immune protection against vaccines and previous infections.
The UK has record high levels of Covid with confirmed cases reaching nearly 120,000 on Thursday – and that’s an underestimate of what’s really going on as not everyone gets tested and the people who have it caught more than once are not included in the figures.
We don’t know what will happen when Omicron hits the elderly
Old age has always been the biggest risk factor for getting seriously ill with Covid.
In the UK, most cases of Omicron and people who end up in hospital are under 40, so we’re not sure what will happen when it hits elderly and vulnerable populations.
Omicron’s ability to partially evade immunity means that more elderly people may be infected than during the Delta Wave.
Huge numbers have been increased, but protection is decreasing
Two doses of a vaccine offer little protection against the capture of Omicron, which has led to a massive expansion of the booster campaign.
Today, over 31 million people in the UK have improved their immune system.
However, Omicron’s protection against capture appears to wane after about 10 weeks. Protection against serious illness is likely to last much longer.
But we got antiviral drugs now
The new drugs are expected to prevent even more patients from going to the hospital.
They are given to people at high risk of Covid, including cancer patients and people who have had an organ transplant.
Molnupiravir is an antiviral drug that interferes with Omicron’s ability to replicate in our body and reduces hospitalizations by 30%. Sotrovimab is an antibody therapy that adheres to the virus and reduces hospital visits by 79%.
Both suppress the virus, giving the immune system time to respond.
The NHS and staff are already feeling the pressure
An increase at Omicron could put more people in the hospital while also taking away the people needed to care for them.
The sheer volume of people catching Omicron is also affecting doctors, nurses and the rest of the NHS workforce as they have to self-isolate as well.
Nearly 19,000 NHS workers were on leave with Covid on December 19, which is 54% more than the week before.
Meanwhile, NHS Providers, which represents hospital and ambulance services in England, say the health service faces its busiest Christmas time ever. And that globally, 94.5% of adult beds were occupied compared to 89% last year.
The next few weeks are key
The question is whether everything in our favor – milder, antivirals, boosters – is enough to deal with a variant that’s spreading faster than anything we’ve seen before.
Or will it take more restrictions to handle the Omicron wave?
The speed at which this is happening means that we will know very quickly how it is going to play out.