The Ghosts of Variants Past bring comfort amid omicron gloom

The Ghosts of Variants Past bring comfort amid omicron gloom
© Provided by The Telegraph There are some reasons to be cheerful amid the gloom surrounding the latest omicron variant

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. Which, as tradition dictates, heralds the advent of a new Covid variant that threatens to slam the door on festive fun like a harassed innkeeper.

But lo! There may be a ray of light amid the omicron gloom: The Ghosts of Variants Past.

It is worth remembering that we have been here before, and while variants have undoubtedly caused problems, they have never created anything like the devastation forecast when they first emerged.

Take alpha. On December 14 last year, an ashen-faced Matt Hancock stood up in the House of Commons to inform MPs that a newly mutated coronavirus was spreading exponentially across Kent, London, Essex and Hertfordshire.

Alpha had actually emerged in September, but was only discovered following an investigation into why coronavirus cases in Kent continued to rise during the November lockdown.

By the time the authorities noticed there was a problem, the mutated strain was already out of stable, with more than 1,000 cases recorded across 60 local authorities.

Unable to bolt the door in time, Boris Johnson was forced to cancel Christmas for millions on December 21, with many areas placed in Tier Four restrictions.

We had the same issue with delta, which despite not being identified in Britain until April, had actually arrived by at least February.

Today we are in a much better position to track the virus and try to limit its impact. Just a handful of cases of omicron have so far been found and NHS Test and Trace is working to throw a ring around contacts to stop it from spreading.

Even if we do not manage to stop the spread of omicron, which many scientists think is unlikely, the previous variants give us hope that it will not be as deadly as feared, and vaccines will still work.

The Ghosts of Variants Past bring comfort amid omicron gloom
© Provided by The Telegraph Omicron: How it differs

In December, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) suggested that alpha was between 34 per cent and 74 per cent more transmissible than the original strain.

A study published in January by academics from the World Health Organisation (WHO) put it even higher, at 70-80 per cent.

But in July, the University of Oxford assessed the spread of the alpha variant and found it had largely been carried by “super-seeding” events. Oxford scientists eventually determined it was around 30 to 40 per cent more transmissible than the original, wild-type virus.

Similarly, on January 23 last year, a report by the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) estimated alpha was 30 per cent more deadly, with early data suggesting the variant changed the death rate from 1 per cent to 1.3 per cent.

But by March, Public Health England (PHE) had determined that the Kent variant was no more deadly than the original strain. Although it was linked to a 34 per cent increased risk of hospitalisation, no significant difference in the risk of mortality was observed.

Undoubtedly, the Kent variant was responsible for the rapid rise of cases that led to the deadly winter wave, but if the original predictions had been right, we might have faced excess deaths closer to 100,000 rather than the 63,000 we actually saw.

A similar pattern emerged with delta. On April 15, PHE announced that a new variant with worrying mutations had been found in the UK. By then, 77 cases had already been found, and within a month it was spreading through the country and doubling each week.

On May 15, Boris Johnson warned the variant could “seriously disrupt” roadmap plans, and after apocalyptic modelling suggesting it could bring more than 200,000 deaths, Freedom Day on June 21 was pushed back a month.

Yet the devastating delta wave never occurred, as it became clear that vaccines were holding up well against the new variant. Real-world data from PHE showed that AstraZeneca was 92 per cent effective against hospitalisation against delta while Pfizer was 96 per cent.

Studies have since found it to be around 50 per cent more transmissible, with double the risk of hospitalisation for unvaccinated people compared to alpha. It is undoubtedly a scarier virus, yet our vaccines held up admirably.

It was a similar story for the original South African variant – now known as beta. In February, South Africa halted the rollout of the AstraZeneca jab after trials showed that the beta variant all but wiped out any benefit of a vaccine.

Critics pointed out at the time that the trial subjects had been young and healthy, which made the effectiveness against severe disease in those most at risk impossible to determine.

They were right. Later studies found that a single dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine offered up to 80 per cent protection against hospitalisation and death.

Although omicron is now showing up as the latest spectre at the feast, there is cause for optimism. Unlike South Africa, where the virus is spreading rapidly, we have high levels of vaccination.

Nearly half the country has also now had a previous Covid infection, according to Cambridge University, meaning T-cell levels will be high, and these long-term memory immune cells are far better than antibodies at battling infections that look slightly different to the original virus.

Most scientists think it is unlikely we will see complete immune escape from the vaccine, with some even suggesting this variant might bring a more infectious, but milder disease. Oh, tidings of comfort and joy, if true.

So there are good reasons to stay merry and bright as Christmas approaches. As Dickens reminds us, “there is nothing in the world so contagious as laughter and good humour”. Even omicron can’t compete.

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