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Omicron may be mild, but opens door to ‘nastier’ variants – stark scientific warning

Coronavirus: WHO on new variant with 'multiple mutations'

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David Katz, emeritus professor of immunopathology at UCL, told Express.co.uk that the “best hypothesis” as to the emergence of Omicron “is that it arose in an immune-suppressed person”. This would explain why the strain was able to make such an evolutionary leap, having about 50 genetic mutations.

He added that the “brilliance” of our genetic sequencing abilities gives us a “sense of confidence” with new variants that may still thwart our current defences.

The Omicron variant was first identified in November and is believed to have originated in South Africa. The World Health Organisation listed it as a variant of concern two days later on November 26.

However, studies have suggested that though Omicron may be more transmissible than previous strains – accounting for the vast majority of infections in the UK now – it is less likely to cause severe illness.

Researchers in England, Scotland and South Africa found at the end of last year that the risk of hospital admission with Omicron was between 15 and 80 percent lower with Omicron than with Delta, according to the BMJ.

However, Professor Katz cautioned: “You’ve got to worry about another mutant, obviously.”

He said: “The fact that it exists, and the best hypothesis is that it arose in an immune-suppressed person, then the chances of less delightful, user-friendly […] mutants might arrive.”

Despite Omicron being seen to be milder, Professor Katz said, its existence “just highlights the nastier ones could also arise in the immediate wider immune-suppressed population. That’s one thing that does worry me.”

Professor Katz applauded the “absolute brilliance of the sequencing system” that allowed scientists to track variants so quickly and accurately.

He noted that when HIV became prevalent in the 1980s, trying to rapidly trace the first case had been a “futile exercise”, adding: “Even in 1982 to 1983, it was inconceivable that what would be happening would be like this.”

However, Professor Katz cautioned that it was “premature” to say vaccination would prevent additional waves and secondary infection, even though it meant there are “less people with severely compromised lungs” who may need hospitalisation.

He said: “It’s almost as if the sequencing of the virus has got so far ahead of itself.

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“It’s got so far ahead of itself, that we think that we’re relatively invulnerable because we can sequence and know which virus it is, and if a new virus creeps up, we know we can get it, we know pretty quickly that Pfizer or Moderna can change their vaccine, […] if they find some new variant arising that isn’t susceptible.

“So all those kinds of things [are] giving us a sense of confidence.”

Professor Katz also said that “we don’t know that this one doesn’t give you a bigger risk of long COVID.

He added: “That’s a serious problem. We don’t know that long Covid is or isn’t associated with a particular variant.”

Despite growing optimism about the Omicron variant producing less severe illness, earlier this week Chris Whitty, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, expressed caution.

He told a Downing Street briefing: “The idea that this is a mild disease as opposed to less likely to be hospitalised I think is easily demonstrated to be incorrect.”

Sir Chris said that rates in older people, who are much more likely to require hospitalisation, look as if they are still rising, and urged people to get boosted to protect against severe illness.

Professor Katz commented: “What Chris Whitty is trying to do, is trying to make sure that there isn’t undue optimism, that there isn’t misplaced optimism. He’s quite right, you cannot say with absolute certainty it won’t have an effect that it might have.

“There might be more long-term effects from it. There might be unsuspected neurological effects – because tiredness and headaches are part of the symptoms – all those kinds of things, you don’t know the answer to.

“The speed of the viral sequencing has outpaced the speed with which one can interpret it.”

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