Omicron causes less severe illness, but it is far more infectious than previous variants and is now the most dominant strain in the community
Doctor Connor Bamford, a virologist at Queen’s University Belfast who specialises in the study of respiratory illness, elaborates on why Omicron is less dangerous but much more infectious than previous Covid variants such as Alpha and Delta
“All viruses mutate - that is their nature. But sometimes if a rare mutation emerges that can spread the infection better it can out-compete the other strains,” explains Dr Connor Bamford, a top virologist at Queen’s University Belfast in explaining how Omicron has reached dominance over other Covid strains in the community.
”We think Omicron originated in Africa late last year and was more transmissible than Delta in that it can infect people who have had one or two vaccines or who have had previous infections.
“It spreads much better and so therefore it out-manoeuvres the other variants to become the most dominant.”
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“Because Omicron is better at infecting people then Delta has no place to go.
“We see different symptoms with Omicron and it is milder so it doesn’t cause the same severe lung infection that we saw before.
“But is that totally because of the new variant or is that because more members of the population have received at least one or two doses of the vaccine and a booster jab?
Although we are seeing a much higher rate of infection, we are seeing people get less severely ill.
Bamford adds: ”With Omicron we are seeing cold symptoms, a bit of a cough, fever, runny or blocked nose, but we don’t really understand why this variant is milder.
“But it is able to circulate rampantly in the community particularly among populations that are less well vaccinated as in America.
“Their Omicron wave is therefore associated comparatively with more incidences of severe illness and death.
”However in populations where there has been major vaccine uptake and people have experienced previous Covid infections that have given them background immunity, then Omicron is less harmful, but it is still a serious health risk, of course.
“The vaccine is the best response we have to all the strains that develop although as we have seen receiving both doses of the vaccine and the booster, while for the most part will preclude you from serious illness and death, you of course are still seeing those who have been fully jabbed becoming infected and becoming ill.
”Children are the group that have the lowest immunity because they are not fully vaccinated.
”There are issues with lifting all restrictions while Omicron remains so transmissible and it doesn’t sit that comfortably with me that we are allowing it to spread, especially among children who have not been vaccinated, although we know that their chances of becoming seriously ill as a result of Covid are much lower.
”But there are concerns about the safety of vaccinating children.”
WEARING MASKS, VENTILATION AND AIR FILTRATION COULD MITIGATE AGAINST INFECTION
If we are to create communal areas and work spaces, offices, classrooms and restaurants and bars that will delimit the spread of Covid which is airbourne and can be passed through droplets, then as the UK’s Independent SAGE experts are advising we need to maintain mask wearing, a degree of social distancing and have ventilation systems built into indoor environments to reduce the risk of viral spread.
Bamford agrees: “Mask wearing and ventilation are key, so air filtration devices in workplaces and schools for example would definitely reduce our Covid risk, and this will require investment.”
As well as the dangers of an initial Covid infection, the major blight of long Covid which is affecting an estimated 22,000 people across Northern Ireland and causes a devastating panoply of symptoms from extreme fatigue and breathlessness to headaches and gut and stomach problems, is another area in which medical research is still at an embryonic stage.
But Bamford is hopeful that as time progresses science will help us to better understand ways of treating long Covid and the fatigue that is synonymous with any serious viral infection, although the range and severity of symptoms that have been reported under the umbrella term of post-Covid syndrome can be so severe as to amount to a disability with ONS statistics showing many suffering in this way have had to give up work, lost homes and relationships, such is the seriousness of the debilitation that it can instantiate. “There is increased recognition of what long Covid is and medics are working on therapies that can help and researchers and scientists are working hard to understand it and help thoseaffected achieve speedier recovery,” adds Bamford.
”We might see another variant in the summer, and we have to get through next winter, so I do think Covid will be on the radar here at least for the next year.
“It’s hard to predict what will happen if and when a new variant emerges.
“But we are lucky that here in Northern Ireland in the rest of the UK, in so far as people have been fully vaccinated and received the booster, or have recovered from previous infections from previous strains and therefore have developed antibodies and immunity, then have the best possible defence against serious Covid illness that medicine can currently provide.”
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