If the first reports coming out of South Africa are correct, Omicron might be more transmissible than the current dominant Covid-19 strain, Delta, but cause less severe symptoms for many people. A leading expert says that, if the new strain does turn out to be milder for some people, that creates a new set of problems.
As Omicron battles to become the dominant strain of Covid-19 in the UK, Dr Quinton Fivelman, PhD, the Chief Scientific Officer at London Medical Laboratory, says that it’s vital that people continue to distinguish between a cold or mild flu and a case of Omicron.
Says Dr Fivelman: ‘Early reports from South Africa suggest that Omicron is more transmissible than previous strains of Covid -19 but may have milder symptoms for many people. Obviously, everyone hopes that is true but, if it is, then a milder strain of a more virulent coronavirus presents a new set of problems.
‘As Omicron becomes the dominant form of the virus in the UK and, if it does turn out to be less severe for many of us, that may well mean fewer people bother to take Covid-19 PCR or lateral flow tests on the assumption that are just suffering from a cold or mild flu.
‘It could be vital to know if you have had Omicron if new strains occur. There might be long-term conditions associated with the virus that we are not yet fully aware of. Even if your initial illness was mild, we know the virus tries to attack multiple organs and can impact on blood sugar levels etc, leading to delayed “long Covid” illnesses.
‘The symptoms of Omicron appear to be somewhat different to previous strains of the coronavirus. The tell-tale loss of taste and smell does not seem to be as pronounced, for example, and the cough is also not as dominant. Instead, aches, a scratchy cough, runny nose and sneezing are the key indications, making it even harder to distinguish from a cold or flu. Many common symptoms of illness, such as fever or a runny nose, are primarily caused by our immune responses to infections rather than direct damage by viruses or bacteria, and these symptoms can vary between people.
‘One recent study has found that the Omicron variant includes genetic material from another virus – possibly one that causes the common cold. According to researchers at the Massachusetts-based data analytics firm nference, this could mean the virus transmits more easily, while only causing mild or even asymptomatic disease.
‘However, it’s important to realize that not everyone will be so mildly affected. People who have not been double or triple jabbed, who have underlying health conditions or have failed to develop sufficient antibodies, could still be severely impacted by the new strain. Taking a PCR or lateral flow test when you are still poorly is the best way of being sure whether or not you have Omicron or any other strain of the virus. Even if you are not feeling very unwell, knowing you have the virus and that you need to self-isolate will help keep other people, who may be more vulnerable, safe.
‘For those people who have already recovered from an illness, however, and want to know if it was a mild case of Covid, a simple fingerprick antibody test will reveal if they have recently had the virus. This will also tell you if you still have protection against the virus as antibody levels decrease over time.
‘If your antibody levels have climbed, then you have had the virus. If not, then it was just a simple cold, and you may still go on to develop a severe case of the new strain of Covid if you do catch it.
‘People will need to be regularly tested for antibody levels, therefore, to give them a baseline picture, in order to see if they have had a sudden increase in antibodies unconnected with any top-up jabs. If fewer people test for Covid in general, widespread antibody testing may also be the only true way to get a picture of how endemic the virus has become and how much we are still protected against reinfection. That’s why London Medical Laboratory has been calling for mass antibody testing since June.’
If anyone is concerned about their own immune response to the jabs and how well they continue to produce antibodies, the new generation blood tests available from London Medical Laboratory are highly accurate, quick and simple to carry out, either in their own home through the post, or at one of the many drop-in clinics that offer this test across London and the southeast.”
Dr Quinton Fivelman, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer, London Medical Laboratory