Omicron variant 'highly transmissible but appears to be milder form of Covid', says South African expert

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A South African health researcher said early data suggests the Omicron variant of coronavirus is highly transmissible, but has a less than one per cent chance of re-infection and typically results in “milder” disease.

Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show, Professor Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute in South Africa, said: “We know three things that we didn’t know last week, the first thing is that the virus is spreading extraordinarily fast in South Africa, the increase in cases is much steeper than it’s been in the past three waves so it seems that Omicron is able to spread very easily and virtually all the cases that we see in South Africa right now are Omicron.

“The second thing we have data on is re-infections, so as you know, after you’ve had Covid you have about a one per cent chance, or perhaps even less than a one per cent chance, of getting re-infected and even getting disease again, of course, by this virus.

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“The third little bit of data we have already relates to clinical cases and how severe the disease is.

The UK's booster jab programme is being enhanced in response to the Omicron variant.The UK's booster jab programme is being enhanced in response to the Omicron variant.
The UK's booster jab programme is being enhanced in response to the Omicron variant.

"The only data suggests the disease may occur more in younger people and mostly younger people who are unvaccinated and overall so far the disease has appeared to be milder but again I want to say we have to be cautious – these are very early days.”

Professor Mark Woolhouse, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), told the same programme that vaccinations will still be "very, very good" against the Omicron variant.

He said: “Vaccinologists and immunologists think that this variant won’t evade the vaccines entirely.

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“It’s important to remember that against the Delta variant, which is a different variant, the booster vaccinations have turned out to be very effective, well into the 90 per cent protection against infection but also against disease and putting people in hospital.

“So even if the vaccines were slightly less effective against Omicron they would still be very very good.”

He said the variant is "spreading pretty rapidly" in the UK.

“The Omicron variant is highly transmissible, it appears to be spreading very rapidly in South Africa and the early signs are that it’s spreading pretty rapidly in the UK too," he said.

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“If those trends continue then over the course of the coming weeks and months, Omicron could even come to replace Delta entirely right around the world.

“The Health Security Agency reported as of Friday over 100 confirmed cases of Omicron in the UK, right across the country but with concentrations likely in London and in Scotland.”

Professor Woolhouse said it is “too late” to make a “material difference” to a potential wave of Omicron cases.

Asked about the new travel rules, the Government adviser added: “I think that may be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

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“If Omicron is here in the UK, and it certainly is, if there’s community transmission in the UK, and it certainly looks that way, then it’s that community transmission that will drive a next wave.

“The cases that are being imported are important, we want to detect those and isolate any positive cases we find, as we would for any case anywhere.

“But I think it’s too late to make a material difference to the course of the Omicron wave if we’re going to have one.”

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