The Omicron Covid variant is unlikely to “reboot” the pandemic in a population that has been widely vaccinated, according to a UK expert who voiced cautious optimism that existing vaccines would prevent serious disease.
Scientists have expressed alarm about the B.1.1.529 variant, first identified in Gauteng in South Africa, over its high number of mutations. Omicron has more than 30 mutations on its spike protein – more than double the number carried by the Delta variant.
However, Prof Sir Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, , said the location of the mutations meant vaccines may still be effective. “If you look at where most of the mutations are, they are similar to regions of the spike protein that have been seen with other variants so far,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“That tells you that despite mutations existing in other variants, the vaccines have continued to prevent very severe disease as we’ve moved through Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta,” said Pollard, whose team developed the AstraZeneca vaccines.
Pollard said that “from a speculative point of view” there was optimism vaccines would continue to guard against severe disease, but acknowledged this would not be confirmed for several weeks. “It is extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen,” he said.
The Labour party meanwhile said Britain should cut the gap between the second dose of a Covid-19 vaccination and the booster jab from six to five months. “The pandemic is not over. We need to urgently bolster our defences to keep the virus at bay,” said Labour’s junior health spokesperson Alex Norris on Saturday morning.
Pollard’s remarks came after the variant reached Europe on Friday, with scientists warning it would inevitably spread to Britain. The UK has restricted travel from South Africa and five other southern African countries, while Canada, the US and Australia have also announced travel bans from a number of countries in the region. Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said hotel quarantine and enhanced testing would be introduced across the UK.
As alarm grows over Omicron, which the World Health Organization (WHO) said showed “preliminary evidence suggest[ing] an increased risk of reinfection”, further restrictions are being discussed within the UK government. A move to “plan B” would involve the reintroduction of mandatory mask wearing and working from home, as well as Covid passports and other measures.
Prof Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said it was his “greatest worry” that people may not follow restrictions after almost two years of the pandemic. “If we need to do something more muscular at some point, whether it’s for the current new variant or at some later stage, can we still take people with us?”
However, he said he believed the public would overall be responsive “provided you are clear with people what the logic is, provided they feel that we’re being entirely straight with them as to all the data”.
Prof Stephen Reicher, a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science, said “the notion of behavioural fatigue” – the idea that people would not abide by restrictions – “was probably as egregious an error as the problems with PPE or the problems with test and trace”.
“It led in March 2022 to a delay in imposing restrictions and that probably led to many deaths, up to tens of thousands of deaths.”
He said people had been “extremely resilient” and that the “notion that people are the weak point in the pandemic response … is probably an inversion of the truth.”