There are promising signs that vaccinated people will be well-protected.
Affected countries continued to report mostly “mild” cases as UK virologist Professor Lawrence Young insisted: “It’s not all gloom and doom.”
He said Omicron “could help us to get out of this pandemic by competing away the severe disease caused by Delta”.
Meanwhile, restrictions have been brought in by Boris Johnson to “buy us time in the face of this new variant”.
The Prime Minister pledged to “throw everything” at the booster vaccination campaign and offer jabs to 40 million over-18s by January 31 to tackle its spread. In rules enshrined in law until March, people must isolate for 10 days if they come into contact with someone who has the Omicron variant, or risk a fine of up to £10,000.
Mandatory mask-wearing in shops and public transport came into force this week and schools have been told that face coverings should be worn in communal areas by staff, visitors and pupils in Year 7 and above.
Travellers arriving into the country are be required to take a PCR test on day two and self-isolate until they have received a negative test result.
Boris Johnson pledged to “throw everything” at the booster vaccination campaign.
But in the same Downing Street press conference, the PM insisted another lockdown is “extremely unlikely”, and insisted the Government did not want people to cancel Christmas parties or nativity plays.
Writing in the Daily Express today, Professor Young of the University of Warwick, says there is “room for optimism” as the UK now has better drugs available and work is under way on tweaked vaccines. He adds: “We are in much better shape than if Omicron had arrived a year ago.”
Prof Young said that if reports that Omicron is more infectious and causes mild disease are correct, “then it might be that Omicron could out-compete the Delta variant in the same way that Delta was able to dominate infection with the Alpha variant”.
He added: “This could help us to get out of this pandemic by competing away the severe disease caused by Delta.”
But he warned it would be a couple of weeks until the true effects of Omicron on hospital admissions and vaccine protection are known.
Masks have been reintroduced in shops and public transports to curb the spread.
His optimism was shared by Israeli health minister Nitzan Horowitz. His country has reported four Omicron cases.
He said: “In the coming days we will have more accurate information about the efficacy of the vaccine against Omicron, but there is already room for optimism.
“And there are initial indications that those who are vaccinated with a vaccine still valid or with a booster will also be protected from this variant.” Mr Horowitz warned: “The vaccine is really crucial right now. Anyone who is exposed to the variant without a vaccine will put themselves at unnecessary risk.”
He did not give further details of the evidence and experts have cautioned against jumping to conclusions before more tests are completed.
Reports from medics treating patients in southern African countries have offered hope that the rapid spread of Omicron may not lead to a surge in severe illness.
A health official in Botswana said that among 19 cases, 16 had no symptoms and the rest had “very, very mild” symptoms.
Further travel restrictions have been put in place.
Some 32 Omicron cases had been reported in the UK by last night – 22 in England and 10 in Scotland. Cases have been reported in 23 countries, according to the World Health Organization. In the UK the Government has announced deals for 114 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna jabs in the next two years.
They were accelerated in light of Omicron’s emergence to “future-proof” the vaccine programme, and will include access to modified
vaccines tweaked to better target mutated strains if they are needed. In total, the UK has secured access to 453.5 million vaccine doses from six separate developers.
Across the UK a further 48,374 Covid-19 cases and 171 deaths were reported yesterday. More than 10 million people have tested positive overall.
The UK Health Security Agency said the Omicron cases were in the East Midlands, East of England, London, South-east and North-west. Work is under way to determine whether there are links to southern Africa.
Dr Jenny Harries, the agency’s chief executive, said it was “very likely” more cases would emerge in the coming days. She added: “We are continuing our efforts to understand the effect of this variant on transmissibility, severe disease, mortality, antibody response and vaccine efficacy.
“Vaccination is critical to help us bolster our defences against this new variant – please get your first, second, third or booster jab without delay.”
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “Thanks to the vaccines taskforce, we have an excellent track record of securing thevaccines the country needs to keep this virus at bay.
“These deals will future-proof the Great British vaccination effort – which has so far delivered more than 115 million first, second and booster jabs across the UK – and will ensure we can protect even more people in the years ahead.
“This is a national mission and our best weapon to deal with this virus and its variants is to get jabs in arms.”
Prof Rowland Kao, of the University of Edinburgh, said much would depend on the
balance between transmissibility and severity of disease. He said: “Obviously, if twice as transmissible but half as likely to cause severe illness, you are in roughly the same place.
“However it becomes more complicated if you also consider the risk that additional transmissibility might pose to those who are especially vulnerable.”
He added that it was better to be cautious for now, saying: “It may be that we can quickly relax again – and we’ll all be happy.”
Meanwhile, a triple-vaccinated Israeli doctor believes he became infected with the Omicron variant while at a conference in London on November 23.
Elad Maor, 45, came to the UK on November 19 and stayed at a hotel in Islington while attending the three-day convention attended by 1,250 people at the ExCeL.
It’s not all doom and gloom, says PROF LAWRENCE YOUNG
Travellers must now take PCR tests on their return to the UK.
It is not surprising that we are seeing increasing numbers of cases with the Omicron variant.
Once one is identified, particularly if more infectious, it will have spread far beyond the few original cases and countries.
That’s the nature of infectious disease in a world of international travel.
Early and anecdotal reports from South Africa suggest Omicron is more infectious than the Delta variant and causes only mild disease.
It might be that Omicron could out-compete the Delta variant in the same way that Delta was able to dominate infection with the Alpha variant. This could help us to get out of this pandemic by competing away the severe disease caused by Delta.
But all we have are anecdotal reports and we need to wait to see what happens with the spread of Omicron infection, its impact on hospitalisations and deaths, and whether vaccination is protective.However, it will also take a few weeks for lab studies to analyse whether the antibodies induced by current vaccines can block infection with this variant.
But it’s not all doom and gloom – there is room for optimism. Developers of the mRNA vaccines are already modifying them so that, if needed, they can offer further protection from Omicron.
We also have two antiviral drugs that target parts of the virus not changed in Omicron and that could be used if vaccine-induced and natural immunity are threatened, particularly in the vulnerable.
We are in better shape than if Omicron had arrived a year ago. But variants will continue to be generated as long as the virus can spread, particularly in countries such as South Africa where vaccination rates are low.
This emphasises the need to control the pandemic globally. It is in our interest to support the rollout of vaccines across the world.