VACCINES should protect against the Omicron variant because it does not appear to be any worse than other new strains, world leaders have said.
Top scientists said it was “highly unlikely” super-strain Omicron could completely evade protection offered by jabs.
WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan is hopeful boosters will protect against OmicronCredit: AP
A patient receives a dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Swaminarayan School vaccination centre, in LondonCredit: AP
This means that on a population scale, the vaccines will still have an impact, while for individuals, the jabs should still prevent severe disease for the majority.
WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said: “We have highly effective vaccines that have proved effective against all the variants so far, in terms of severe disease and hospitalisation… There’s no reason to expect that it wouldn’t be so [for Omicron].”
Other strains of the coronavirus have been shown to weaken vaccine protection, including Delta which is the most dominant version of coronavirus in the UK.
However, Dr Ryan suggested that, despite Omicron having considerably more mutations, this would not make it more of a problem.
Initial estimates say the Omicron strain may weaken the effectiveness of jabs by up to 40 per cent, based on comparing its genetics with other variants.
But there have been no large scale studies of the true effects of jabs in a real world situation.
The vaccines are still the best way to protect against any type of Covid, and booster jabs help surge antibodies even further.
Dr Ryan said: “We have to confirm if there’s any lapse in that protection, but I would expect to see some protection there.
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“The preliminary data from South Africa wouldn’t indicate that we will have a catastrophic loss of efficacy. In fact, the opposite at the moment.”
In the fight against all Covid variants, he said, “the best weapon we have right now is to get vaccinated”, adding that Omicron had not “changed the rules of the game”.
OMICRON “LESS SEVERE”
Dr Ryan said more research is needed to judge the severity of Omicron, amid reports it could cause more mild illness.
He said: “The preliminary data doesn’t indicate that this is more severe. In fact, if anything, the direction is towards less severity.”
It echoed the comments of top scientists in the US and UK, who cautioned it may be too early to make conclusions on Omicron’s severity.
Top US scientist Anthony Fauci who said at the weekend Omicron did not appear worse than prior strains based on early indications.
He noted South African populations skewed young and were less likely to become hospitalised, however. Severe disease can also take weeks to develop so may not be evident yet.
But what is starting to become clearer is how much more transmissible Omicron is, which has implications for hospitalisations anyway.
There are concerns that in the UK, Omicron could drive a doubling of Covid cases by Christmas.
Cases are doubling every two to three days, experts say.
The UK’s Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said the period between someone being exposed to the virus and showing symptoms appears to be shorter than the average 5-6 days, which makes it harder to control the virus.
Even if the jabs protect people from severe disease, an increase in cases will inevitably lead to an increase in hospital admissions by nature.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents NHS trusts, said: “The fact is if you get an enormous number of people getting the disease, some of those people will end up in hospital and will end up in intensive care unit.”
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said there are signs hospital admissions for Covid-19 were increasing already.
GET YOUR JABS
It comes as doctors and ministers alike are urging Brits to get their booster to ramp up their protection in a race against Omicron.
December 10 is the last day that a person could get a Covid booster (or flu jab) and have full protection by the time they spend Christmas with family.
It takes 14 days at least for antibodies to be fired up again, taking protection back up to above 90 per cent.
Mr Javid said: “Getting your winter vaccines – whether that is your flu jab if eligible or your booster jab – is one of the most important things people can do for yourself an your family this winter.”
Professor Stephen Powis, the NHS England national medical director, told PA: “Once again, the key for the public is getting booster dose if you haven’t had your first vaccine, get it.
“Because that is what will reduce the number of people who unfortunately need healthcare because of Covid and that will give us the capacity to get on and deal with the backlog that has unfortunately arisen because of the pandemic.”
He said the NHS was in a “constant state of preparedness” and was carefully watching developments with the Omicron variant.
Prof Powis added: “I think most experts are now in a place where they believe that it’s likely to be more transmissible.
“We are not sure yet about how severe it will be – that I think will become clearer over the next few weeks.
“But it’s still the case that vaccines are the best defence against it, particularly that third booster dose.
“Even if it is able to evade some of the effects of vaccines, the booster dose provides that increasing antibodies in the blood will provide a degree of protection against changes in Omicron compared to previous variants.”