Words by ITV News Science Producer Philip Sime
It would probably have seemed unthinkable in March 2020. The prospect that, 20 months and many lost lives later, a new variant of coronavirus could once again lead to restrictions on our daily lives.
But it’s the reality the world now faces as scientists trace the spread of the new Omicron variant around the world and race to answer the biggest question right now: will this new variant evade our current vaccines and knock our pandemic recovery off course?
It’s normal for viruses to mutate.
But the Omicron variant – which has 32 mutations on the spike protein – came as a surprise to even the most seasoned of epidemiologists.
“We definitely do see mutations all the time. That’s totally normal for a virus. And we’ve seen many new variants in the pandemic,” Molecular Epidemiologist, Dr Emma Hodcroft, told ITV News.
“But most of those have many fewer mutations than the current variant, Omicron. And, in particular, they didn’t have quite as many in places that are critical for the immune system to recognise,” she said.
We don’t yet know the impact that these mutations will have on the efficacy of our current vaccines, but for Dr Hodcroft, Omicron is the latest branch in what she refers to as the “virus family tree”.
In 2015, Dr Hodcroft co-founded Nextstrain. It’s an online platform which was set up to predict what the next strain of influenza would be.
Since then, Dr Hodcroft and her colleagues have worked on viruses, including Ebola and Zika.
And throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the platform has provided a real-time picture of how the virus is evolving as it infects its way around the world.
“One thing that’s really important to remember is that the virus itself doesn’t have any goals. It has no personality. It has no brain,” Dr Hodcroft said.
Epidemiologist Dr Emma Hodcroft said the impact of the Omicron variant is still unknown
What the virus really cares about, Dr Hodcroft explained, is being able to infect cells and, in turn, transmit to the next person.
At the moment, scientists are working to understand the extent to which Omicron has an advantage here.
“I think the evidence is very clear that Omicron is spreading more quickly in South Africa than the Delta variant. And that is likely also to be the case in other countries. But we don’t know at the moment how rapidly that variant will spread, say in the UK or in Europe,” Professor Paul Hunter, who specialises in medical microbiology and virology, told ITV News.
Professor Paul Hunter said the newly-introduced Covid measures may not be enough to stop the spread of the Omicron variant
It’s this very early evidence which led the government to this week tighten the rules around foreign travel and mask-wearing.
While he believes these measures are proportional, Professor Hunter believes they “won’t be enough” to cause a decline in the variant if it starts to spread widely.
What the measures will do, he explained, is “reduce the pressure of that transmission” and suppress case numbers, buying us time to roll out the booster vaccination programme.
“That will make a big difference,” he said.
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So, are we facing a continuous arms race between booster vaccines and an evolving virus?
“We’ll definitely see more mutations,” said Dr Hodcroft.
“That’s just life as a virus,” she adds.
The question, she believes, is not whether we will see more mutations, but whether we will see more mutations which cause us problems.
Dr Hodcroft said more Covid virus mutations can be expected
“I think we’ll always see that SARS‑CoV‑2 has a few mutations that maybe allow it to just keep ticking along in the background, a little bit like the common cold,” said Dr Hodcroft.
What we don’t know, she explained, is whether there could be more large mutation events which increase transmissibility by a lot, make the virus more deadly or allow it to get around our existing immunity.