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UK identifies two cases of Omicron Covid variant

The new variant of Covid-19 has been deemed a high risk by the EU.

UK Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance
UK Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance
Image: Jane Barlow/PA

Updated Nov 27th 2021, 5:51 PM

THE UK’S CHIEF scientific advisor has said that the country may need to “face up” to tightening restrictions as two case of the Omicron Covid-19 variant were detected there today.

The individuals and all members of their households have been ordered to self-isolate after one case was detected in Chelmsford, Essex, and the other in Nottingham.

Both cases are believed to be connected and there is a link to southern Africa.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed this evening that there will be no changes to hospitality restrictions, but the country’s Chief Scientific Advisor Patrick Vallance said the UK may need to “face up” to the possibility of further action if the Omicron variant is very transmissible.

Vallance told a Downing Street press conference: “I think we’ll get more information on transmissibility, we’ll get more information on the ability of the vaccines to protect against the virus, but that’s going to take a little bit of time.

“At the moment, the models are more ‘if it spreads very fast, of course it’s going to spread very fast and go into a lot of places, and if it spreads less fast it’s going to do so less’.

“But if it’s very transmissible and does cause big escape, then clearly that’s a major issue we have to face up to.

“But that isn’t what we know at the moment, we need to get that information.”

Vallance added that vaccine makers are already looking at how they can make them more effective against emerging variants, and that a jab designed to specifically target the Omicron variant could be created in “about 100 days”.

“I think it’s important to recognise there are three ways in which this can be done and the companies are thinking about this. The first is the boosters will give high enough antibody coverage that actually that’s going to be enough to cover this. That’s the first situation and needs to be tested. But that looks like something that anyway is going to give protection, whether there’s more needed on top of that we’ll have to see.

“The second is that vaccine manufacturers have been producing broader vaccines anyway to get broader coverage across potential new variants. So those are in the pipeline.

“Then a couple of companies have already said they could tweak their existing vaccines and get a new vaccine out specifically against this in about 100 days.

“Those are the sort of three scenarios, clearly the one which is the one to really go for now is boost, because it is the case that as you keep boosting the vaccine, you get slightly broader coverage because the immune system knows it needs to get broader.

“Because the antibody levels are so high, it actually causes enough coverage of other variants to be effective.”

He added it is expected the variant will spread.

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said it is “inevitable” the Omicron variant will spread across the world over the next few days.

He said while it is clear Omicron is highly transmissible, it is not yet clear how effective the vaccine will be as protection against it – but said those who are vaccinated or receive the booster jab will be less likely to become seriously ill.

In Ireland, virologist Cillian de Gascun has said “we’re right to be concerned” about Omicron: “It’s far more divergent than any of the variants we’ve seen today.”

De Gascun, who is a member of NPHET, told Brendan O’Connor on RTÉ Radio One this morning that “the worry is that because it’s so far removed from the original virus, we would see more re-infections, even in people who have been infected before, and we would see an impact on vaccine effectiveness”.

But he added that other variants such as Alpha and Delta are also divergent from the original virus, but “we know that the vaccines we have still protect against severe disease and against hospitalisation”.

Germany has also reported its first suspected case of the Omicron variant in a person who returned from South Africa via Frankfurt airport. The individual is isolating and sequencing of their infection is yet to be completed. They were fully vaccinated against coronavirus, and developed symptoms “in the course of the week”.

German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who is expected to be sworn in as successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel early next month, stressed Saturday that his coalition would do “everything necessary” to fight the virus and its variants.

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The infected person had arrived in Germany on November 21 at Frankfurt international airport, the country’s busiest, the ministry said in a statement.

The suspect case in Germany follows Belgium saying on Friday it had detected the first announced case in Europe of the new Covid-19 variant, in an unvaccinated person returning from abroad.

A leading Belgian virologist, Marc Van Ranst, tweeted that the person had returned from Egypt on November 11.

The World Health Organisation on Friday declared the recently discovered B.1.1.529 strain of Covid-19 to be a variant of concern, renaming it Omicron.

EU health authorities have said the new strain poses a “high to very high risk” to the continent.

EU officials agreed on Friday to urge all 27 nations in the bloc to restrict travel from several southern African nations, a policy Germany has already announced.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands will be “effectively closed” in the evenings from tomorrow with bars, restaurants and many shops shutting early to curb a spike in Covid cases.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte said yesterday that from tomorrow “the whole of the Netherlands is effectively closed between 5pm and 5am”.

Additional reporting by Emer Moreau

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