COVID-19: New Covid variant - Will new measures against Omicron work? (BBC)

Carolina Williams
December 19, 2021

A new COVID-19 virus variant has been detected and cases have now been confirmed in the UK. The new variant, named Omicron, bears several mutations that may influence its ability to spread and/or cause disease. The diagram below highlights the new mutations found on the Omicron strain:

Image reference – BBC health, 2021.

The World Health Organisation has expressed its concern, especially as the holiday season is approaching, due to the uncertainties surrounding the capabilities of this updated strain. The government has introduced some new regulations and recommendations, including increased face mask-wearing and increased testing, especially for those who have been in contact with the virus. Luckily, it seems like the vaccines and booster jabs are still showing success in helping to decrease the spread and number of hospitalisations. For this reason, efforts have been made to ramp up boosting, with the government’s aim to offer boosters to all over-18s by 31st December. There is hope that this, alongside other newly introduced government measures, could help to prevent another COVID-19 wave. However, as the past two years have demonstrated, it is difficult to predict what the future may hold, and more specifically what impact this new variant will have.

Food for Thought

How do the new regulations help to respond to the new variant?

The government’s response to the detection of the new strain includes some of the previously introduced measures. The aims are to dampen the spread of the new strain as well as limit additional pressures on the NHS. These include:

  • Face coverings – these will be reintroduced in indoor public spaces such as shops, on public transport and in stations.
  • Travel – there will be tighter regulations with regards to arriving in the UK. Everyone will be required to take a PCR test by soon after entry.
  • Increased testing – anyone who has been in contact with a case of the virus is advised to take a daily lateral flow test for at least 7 days. Again, it is must be reiterated that self-isolation and a PCR test should be initiated if any symptoms do start, or a positive lateral flow is found.

There is speculation whether these measures will be sufficient to limit the impact of Omicron. It may be too soon to tell until we have lived with the new strain for a little more time and have learned about how it behaves and presents in individuals. However, in the meantime, applying these temporary restrictions and taking more caution in our day-to-day lives should be encouraged to help to reduce the effects of the Omicron variant.

How is the booster vaccine thought to benefit the response to the new variant?

Whilst the exact effectiveness of the booster against the Omicron variant is difficult to ascertain at this early stage, it is suspected and hoped that boosting the immune system with increased antibodies, even if they are not perfectly specific against the new strain, may be helpful. Increased immunity, via both doses and a booster vaccine, will be advantageous in reducing the presentation of symptoms and also limiting significant spread of the virus. There is also now increased expert knowledge and awareness around COVID-19 in general, compared to when the pandemic first started. Therefore, there is the possibility of an updated vaccine against Omicron specifically in the future, if proposed to be necessary.

Practice Interview QUestions
  1. What are some of the factors that the government and advisory bodies may take into consideration whilst making decisions about how to deal with a ‘new’ virus variant?
  2. What do you think are some steps that could/have been taken to help to reduce the transmission and/or severity of Omicron? How do these work?
  3. Do you think it could be time for a new vaccine? What are some things to consider with regards to introducing a new one too soon/too late?
  4. Can you think of some of the pros and cons of a national lockdown? Hint – think about a range of aspects including the population, the NHS and the economy.

Extra Reading (optional)

General information about Omicron: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-59418127

Information regarding the government’s response: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-59445124