Omicron: why all the fuss?


30th November 2021


In today's article we share the latest advice on the new COVID-19 variant of concern (VOC), Omicron. We discuss where it first emerged, whether it's more transmissible than other variants and if vaccinations are effective against it.

You may have heard that there’s a new COVID-19 variant of concern (VOC) on the block: it’s called Omicron and there’s been lots of media interest.

So, what’s all the fuss? At present, the World Health Organisation (WHO) say there is no information to suggest the symptoms are any different to existing variants. Current testing appears to be effective; efforts are now focused on understanding if this variant is more transmissible (i.e. easier to pass on), and how effective both vaccines and immunity from previous COVID infection are against this variant.

For the latest information from WHO, visit their Omicron update page.

Where did Omicron first emerge?

The Omicron VOC (aka B.1.1.529) seems to have emerged over the past couple of months in South Africa and other neighbouring countries. A small number of cases have been identified in the UK, although there’s a strong sense that this is likely to be the tip of the iceberg. In response, the UK government has imposed some new travel restrictions and processes to limit the introductions of this VOC into the UK. It is a similar story in Australia, with cases identified in the majority of states and territories and further genomic testing reviewing past COVID positive cases. Travel restrictions, both international and domestic vary between each state jurisdiction.

Is Omicron more transmissible?

We don’t yet have much information on the clinical epidemiology of COVID-19 due to Omicron. The initial reports from South Africa suggest that the main symptoms haven’t changed – and the virus isn’t more virulent that other types of the virus that causes COVID-19.

However, it does seem that the virus is more transmissible. The reasons for this are not yet clear, but may be due to changes in the proteins on the outer surface of the virus. So, the transmission routes of the virus are likely to remain the same – mainly through prolonged close contact and sharing of respiratory particles containing infectious virus.

This means that the key interventions to control spread remain the same: wear a facemask, frequent hand hygiene, frequent environmental hygiene, and maximise ventilation.

Are vaccinations effective against Omicron?

Whilst there is some evidence that COVID-19 vaccinations are less effective against Omicron, vaccine protection against COVID-19 isn’t a binary thing. So one of the best ways to stay protected against Omicron and other variants is through getting vaccinated.

Recently, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has updated its advice on the COVID-19 vaccine booster meaning those aged 18 to 39 will also be eligible for a booster when the National Health Service (NHS) calls them forward.

Professor Wei Shen Lim, Chair, COVID-19 immunisation (Nottingham University Hospitals), Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) (JCVI) said:

"Having a booster dose of the vaccine will help to increase our level of protection against the Omicron variant. This is an important way for us to reduce the impact of this variant on our lives, especially in the coming months".

From the Australian perspective, the Australian government has asked the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) to consider if there is a need to reduce the interval between second and booster doses. 

As of 12th December, the ATAGI website noted “Given the likelihood of ongoing transmission of both Omicron and Delta variants, ATAGI recommends COVID-19 booster vaccination for anyone aged 18 and older who completed their primary course of COVID-19 vaccination 5 or more months ago.”

The data continues to emerge, and we know more and more each day – so we’ll try to keep you posted on key developments.

Author Phil Norville Clinical Director

Dr. Phillip Norville

Clinical & Scientific Director, GAMA Healthcare

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