Scientists have always warned that the biggest risk to the UK at this stage of the pandemic is the emergence of a more infectious, virulent and vaccine-resistant variant of the virus. It remains to be seen whether Omicron, the new variant of concern identified by the World Health Organization last week is that.
But the structure of Omicron – the number of concerning mutations in its spike protein – and the preliminary evidence that there is an increased risk of reinfection with this variant have rightly prompted a global response to try and contain its spread as much as possible. It will be weeks before we understand how just much a risk Omicron presents. If it is much more infectious than the Delta variant of Covid, its global spread is to some degree inevitable, though it will of course be slowed by vaccines and travel restrictions. It is a relief that the government acted far more promptly to impose travel restrictions on South Africa and other affected countries than it did in the case of Delta and India, where a delay of weeks undoubtedly contributed to the speed at which Delta became the dominant variant here in the UK. But it is concerning that the government has not been testing all arrivals from South Africa in recent days in the same way as, for example, the Dutch government has.
The emergence of Omicron should serve as a reminder of some key lessons in this pandemic. The first is the importance of genomic sequencing, which tracks the genetic structure of the virus. Omicron was spotted early thanks to South Africa’s huge investment in sequencing, which has allowed swift action to be taken. This could be valuable in terms of developing updated vaccines if needed. But this action takes the form of punishing travel bans, so there is a case for South Africa receiving global compensation in order not to disincentivise countries with similar sequencing capabilities from being transparent about their findings.
Second, as highlighted yet again by former prime minister Gordon Brown in the Guardian last week, Omicron is a reminder that no one is safe until everyone is safe. By the end of the year, enough vaccines will have been manufactured to have vaccinated the whole world against Covid. Yet too many countries are facing this winter with low vaccination rates as a result of wealthier nations hoarding unused supplies. Only 3% of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated, compared with more than 60% in high-income countries. This gap is not only ethically wrong – it increases the likelihood of a vaccine-resistant strain developing. High-income countries need to develop far more efficient and timely systems for delivering unused vaccinations to developing countries well in advance of their expiry date.
Third, the importance of the precautionary principle has been proved over and again in this pandemic. With a virus that spreads so rapidly, less restriction action sooner can prevent the need for more restrictive action for longer later. Britain’s vaccination programme has been a success and means that unless we see another more vaccine-resistant variant, whether that is Omicron or another, we should be able to avoid the sorts of invasive lockdowns that were required in the first and second waves.
The government was right yesterday to introduce stricter requirements around travel, self-isolation for those who have been in contact with Omicron and compulsory mask wearing in shops. As we have argued throughout the pandemic, it needs to boost sick pay in order to ensure people with symptoms can afford to take the time off work to self-isolate if they test positive. Clive Dix, the former chair of the vaccine taskforce, has sounded the alarm about the government’s lack of preparedness for a vaccine-resistant variant, as we report today.
Hopefully, Omicron will prove to be less of a risk than some fear. But if so, we should treat it as a lucky escape. It is a warning that this pandemic is far from over and that the UK and other rich nations should be doing more to combat the spread of the virus in other parts of the world.