Leeds virology expert urges caution when socialising in the run-up to Christmas as Omicron spreads 'rapidly' across country

A leading academic in virology in Leeds has urged caution when it comes to mixing with people in the run-up to Christmas as the new Omicron coronavirus variant “rapidly” gains pace across the country.

Tuesday, 7th December 2021, 4:45 pm

Nationally, experts predict Omicron will take over from Delta in the UK as the dominant variant "within a matter of weeks".

While the latest information suggests a case of the new coronavirus variant has yet to be identified in Leeds, Prof Mark Harris, an infections expert at the University of Leeds, said it is “clearly very rapidly spreading” and people need to be “careful”.

He told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “It’s certainly becoming a dominant strain of virus throughout the world. It’s clearly present everywhere - we keep hearing from different countries that they have identified the strain. There’s a lot more out there than we have identified yet. So it’s clearly very rapidly spreading.”

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Professor Mark Harris, of the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Leeds.

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Suggesting it’s “too early to tell” yet about the severity of Omicron infections, Prof Harris said his recommendation would be to wear masks in pubs and restaurants - which he knows would be “unpopular” - and boost ventilation as ways of limiting spread.

“I think [masks in pubs and restaurants] would be unpopular but I think it would be prudent to try to restrict transmission.

“We know masks work and we know social distancing work. There’s no reason it won’t work now. It is the same virus - a slightly different variant but the way it transmits will be exactly the same

Masks now need to be worn in shops. Picture: Steve Riding

“If we adopt ways in which to try to stem the transmission rates - that would be my recommendation.

“But I don’t think that would happen. It won’t be popular. People don’t want to do it. So we have to take the risk that more people will be infected.”

He said: “You can’t have a Christmas party or a family dinner with people being masked. That’s the limitation.

“We have to [therefore] look at making sure it’s well-ventilated, not spending too long with people”.

Prof Harris added: “It is a concerning time and people don’t want to go out and get infected for over Christmas but it’s a balancing act. It’s a personal choice. We have to be a little bit careful about how many people we mix with and how we mix with them.”

He said the emergence of a new variant was “entirely predictable”, given the imbalance globally of the vaccine roll-out, such as in Africa where only 7.5 per cent of the population has been vaccinated, according to the World Health Organisation.

“We are just allowing the virus to grow in an uncontrolled fashion and the more we do that, the more likely it is to pick up mutations which give you a variant.

“This was entirely predictable. It was just a question of when. And now it has happened, people are maybe waking up to that.

“Maybe the silver lining will be a bit more vaccine equity across the globe. Because until we do that, we will continue to be in this situation. Maybe another six months, maybe a year.

“Maybe this is the best the virus can do - maybe this is the most transmissible variant that is theoretically possible. We don’t know that, we can only speculate.”

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