Has Omicron put us back to step one of the pandemic?

The third lockdown has been hard, but it's had a huge impact on coronavirus cases

Will our long winter of Covid discontent keep going due to the Omicron variant? - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

At 6.31am on December 8 2020, Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to be given a Covid jab outside of a clinical trial. With that one injection the whole pandemic felt a whole lot more hopeful. 

There was a sense that we now had a clear way out of the pandemic which had paralysed the country since March. That we knew where we were going. And that if we all pulled together and gritted our teeth we would get there. 

One year on, that hopeful feeling has vanished.  

A new variant of coronavirus, described by one East Anglian expert as “unstoppable”, has forced the government to take evasive action and reinstate some of the measures that the miraculous vaccines were supposed to free us from. 

On top of this, people’s willingness to follow the new rules is being tested to the extreme by a government mired in a row over a rule-breaking Christmas party which it insists didn’t happen. 

This means any action the government takes could be much less effective than they previously had counted on. 

Taking all of this into account, you’d be forgiven if we had gone a whole year without making any real progress against the virus. So, have we? 

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Scientists are still working to figure out exactly how bad the new form of the virus is. 

But all indications are that it spreads much quicker than the Delta variant does. 

According to Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), the number of cases of Omicron will double every two to three days. 

In fact, the virus spreads so quickly that the health secretary said modelling has shown there would have been one million UK Omicron cases by the turn of the new year if restrictions were not re-introduced. 

If this number of cases were to come to pass, Sage says, “the number of hospitalisations from Omicron may reach 1,000 per day or higher in England by the end of the year (and still be increasing at that point).” 

Despite understanding that the virus spreads much more quickly, there are several things scientists are still not sure of.  

One is whether it has more severe effect than the current Delta variant. 

A school of thought is that if the variant’s effects are much lesser than that of Delta, it could actually be a good thing in the long run. 

But, the scientists at Sage note: “Even if severity of Omicron were half that of Delta, the sheer number of infections could lead to significantly more pressures on health and care settings.  

“Currently there is no strong evidence that Omicron infections are either more or less severe than Delta infections.”  

Perhaps the most pressing question, is whether the vaccines work against the new strain. 

The first lab tests of the new variant in South Africa suggested it can partially evade the Pfizer jab. 

Despite this Dr Mike Ryan, the World Health Organisation's emergencies director, said “there's no reason to expect” the vaccine won’t be effective against the Omicron strain. 

Putting the potential problem into perspective, Sage said if the vaccine’s effectiveness against hospitalisation has reduced from, say, 96% to 92%, “that would effectively double the number of vaccinated individuals who are not protected from hospitalisation.” 

Yet more reports say that boosters mean the effectiveness is preserved. And, if all else fails, the scientists say the current vaccines can be reformulated to better target the tricky strain.  

Given all of the unknowns, after everything that we have been through — and everything it feels like we might be about to go through again — what do we do now? 

Last year, the arrival of vaccines course seemed to have plotted a straightforward course out of the pandemic — jab as many people as possible, as fast as possible. 

Now, the new variant has made the way out anything but clear.  

But, ultimately, the only thing to do seems to be the same as last year — sit tight for just a little bit longer, don’t take too many risks, and hope the scientists can fix this mess. 

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