The super mutant Omicron Covid variant is circulating within the community, the Health Secretary confirmed today.
Sajid Javid told MPs ‘multiple regions of England’ were seeing cases of the variant that were not linked to international travel.
And he said he could not guarantee the variant would not ‘knock us off our road to recovery’, warning ‘the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the Omicron’.
The variant, which was first spotted last month by scientists in South Africa — the epicentre of the outbreak — has since spread to 52 countries.
Experts fear the strain will dodge protection from two doses of Covid vaccines and previous infection, due to its extensive mutations.
But scientists are still weeks away from knowing what impact the strain will have on infections, hospitalisations and deaths in the UK, as scientists wait for laboratory and real-world data.
Mr Javid said the virus will be circulating for years to come and may lead to annual booster vaccinations.
Omicron cases in the UK soared to 336 today, but the Health Secretary said none of those infected with the strain have been hospitalised.
Doctors in South Africa have insisted that most patients suffer only mild illness, with the US’ top Covid expert Dr Anthony Fauci claiming today it ‘doesn’t look like there’s a great degree of severity to it’.
But experts warn the variant spreading among younger age groups and the lag between catching the virus and becoming seriously unwell could be masking the severity of the new strain.
And British scientists, including the Government’s own, warn it could put significant pressure on the NHS by virtue of the fact it can infect more people.
Sajid Javid told MPs ‘multiple regions of England’ were seeing cases of the variant that were not linked to international travel. And he said he could not guarantee the variant would not ‘knock us off our road to recovery’, warning the ‘the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the Omicron’
A total of 261 Omicron cases have been confirmed in England, while there is 71 in Scotland and four in Wales
In total, there are 46,000 Covid cases on average each day in the UK and data from the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) suggests the new strain is already behind around one in 66 of them, or 1.4 per cent
This is the image that has sparked fear among scientists, prompted ministers to turbocharge the UK’s booster vaccine rollout and seen the return of mask mandates in England. It details the new super-mutant Omicron variant’s spike protein mutations which experts fear will make it the most infectious and vaccine-resistant strain yet. The graphic, released by the country’s top variant monitoring team, also lays bare how it is far more evolved than even the world-dominant Delta strain, with nearly five times as many alterations on the spike
Christmas hopes boosted as study suggests ‘70% of Omicron has NOT mutated to evade vaccines or natural immunity’
Existing Covid jabs and prior infection should still protect people against severe illness from the Omicron super variant, according to a study hailed by one of No10’s top health chiefs.
The promising research found that while the new strain has more than triple the micro-mutations as Delta, there are still large swathes of the virus that remain vulnerable immune system.
Italian researchers ran Omicron’s unprecedented number of spike protein alterations through a mathematical model to gauge how well the virus will be recognised by the body.
They found that about 70 per cent of the spike had not evolved to evade vaccines or natural immunity and in theory will still be targeted by the immune system of a vaccinated or recently-infected person.
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency and key No10 advisor, said the finding signalled a ‘glass half full’ scenario, with the variant unlikely to make jabs redundant like previously feared.
But the immunologist expressed some concern that Omicron has three times more alterations to parts of the virus that are targeted by antibodies and T cells, known as epitopes, compared to any other variant.
Mr Javid told the Commons there were now 261 confirmed Omicron cases in England, 71 in Scotland, and four in Wales, bringing the UK total to 336.
He said: ‘This includes cases with no links to international travel and it is highly likely that there is now community transmission across multiple regions of England.’
Mr Javid added: ‘We are learning more about this new variant all the time.
‘Recent analysis from the UK Health Security Agency suggests that the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the Omicron variant than for the Delta variant, but we don’t yet have a complete picture of whether Omicron causes more severe disease or indeed how it interacts with the vaccines.
‘We can’t say for certain at this point whether Omicron has the potential to knock us off our road to recovery.’
He said: ‘We are leaving nothing to chance. Our strategy is to buy ourselves time and to strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists assess this new variant and what it means for our fight against Covid.’
Covid restrictions for UK arrivals to take tests and isolate in quarantine hotels are ‘temporary measures’ in place while scientists in the UK are still learning about the variant, Mr Javid said.
He said the booster programme and monoclonal antibody treatment sotrovimab, which was approved by the UK’s medicines watchdog, will also strengthen Britain’s defenses against the strain.
‘We’re taking early action now so we don’t have to take tougher action later on and so we can take every opportunity to prevent more cases from arriving in our country,’ Mr Javid added.
It comes as the UK recorded 51,459 new cases in the last 24 hours which was a fifth more than last Monday and the third time in a week that they have breached the 50,000 mark. Another 41 deaths were also registered in a 17 per cent increase compared to a week ago.
Another 290,165 booster jabs were rolled out across the country on Sunday, significantly short of No10’s 500,000-a-day target it set last week to shield against the incoming Omicron wave.
Former Prime Minister Theresa May said the Government ‘cannot respond to new variants by stopping and starting sectors of our economy’ and an annual boosters ‘will almost certainly be needed’.
Total Covid cases are rising fastest in London and the South East of England with most of the Omicron infections linked to travellers flying back into the UK
Mr Javid replied: ‘In terms of the severity of this, I think we shouldn’t jump to any conclusion, we just don’t have enough data.’
But he said the virus will not go away for ‘many, many years and perhaps it will lead to annual vaccinations, but we have to find ways to continue with life as normal’.
When asked how many of the infected people tested positive are ill, Mr Javid told the Commons: ‘The number of confirmed cases in the UK is 336 – they are all by definition infected.
‘Some may be asymptomatic, others will be feeling ill. None of them, so far, as far as I am aware, have been hospitalised.’
Earlier today, Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, said he expected it to become the dominant variant ‘probably within the next weeks or a month’, based on how rapidly it is outpacing Delta in the South African epicentre.
He claimed that while that timeline means there is little need for more curbs at Christmas, it does not rule out more restrictions being needed at some point in the New Year.
But Boris Johnson today refused to rule out tougher Covid curbs over the festive period, merely insisting that Christmas will be ‘better’ than last year. He is due to review the current measures in two weeks’ time.
Mr Johnson said on a trip to Merseyside: ‘We’re still waiting to see exactly how dangerous it is, what sort of effect it has in terms of deaths and hospitalisations.’