'Urgent need to move quickly': Leading scientist 'very nervous' about Covid Omicron variant

Passengers lined up to get on an overseas flight at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa (pictured). A number of countries have implemented travel restrictions and bans on people travelling from southern Africa. Credit: AP

A key scientist advising ministers on Covid-19 has explained why he and others are so nervous about the new variant – Omicron – which was first discovered in South Africa. Professor John Edmunds, who is a member of the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told ITV News that the variant was a major concern for two reasons: the “huge” number of mutations and the way that it is spreading at speed through a population that has built up a high level of immunity. Asked if action on our borders would be enough, Prof Edmunds told ITV News: “I think it is a starting point – we need to try to keep this out as long as we possibly can – we can learn more about it – we could be wrong, and this could blow over but I don’t think we want to take the risk.”

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While he admitted there was a chance that we get lucky and kept Omicron out, more likely was that it would emerge in Britain “and then we need to really consider what our plans are for when it does come here, because we all assume it will and then we need to revise our plans and get things in place,” he said. On Thursday, one of the key scientific advisory committees – Nervtag – had an emergency meeting about the unfolding situation. Government sources insisted that Plan A – the current situation England is in under which coronavirus restrictions have been lifted – is still the right choice, but said they remained alert in case more restrictions were needed. Plan B would see more requirements to wear masks, a work from home order return and Covid passports.

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In his interview, Prof Edmunds said he and other scientists were feeling “very nervous about this”. He said the variant had a “constellation of mutations” including more than 30 on the virus’ spike protein that acts as a key allowing it to enter our cells. Ten mutations were on the most critical part of the spike protein, he added, known as the receptor binding domain. Immunity from infection or vaccines is designed to tackle that part of the virus – so if it changes there are concerns for how effective it will be with the Omicron variant. Prof Edmunds argued that on top of that worry was the epidemiological evidence from South Africa that the variant was spreading fast in a population where a lot of people have had Covid and the vaccine is being rolled out. “Put those together with the fact that it has now popped up in other countries and there is an urgent need to move quickly,” he said. However, Edmunds praised South Africa for doing an “amazing job” in terms of both the surveillance of the virus and also alerting the world to the new variant.