Final month, a brand new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 an infection named Omicron was recognized and nations around the globe are taking motion to establish circumstances and outbreaks and management the unfold whereas we study extra.
All viruses naturally change and evolve over time, and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 illness, is not any exception. Generally, modifications and mutations lead to new variants which may be sufficiently completely different biologically to impression the severity of an infection, susceptibility to an infection, or transmissibility of the virus. The modifications can probably additionally have an effect on the efficacy of our diagnostic assessments or vaccines.
This means to mutate is among the largest challenges we face when responding to an outbreak of a virus. For this reason now we have elevated our genomic sequencing capability, to strengthen our surveillance and assist us establish new variants of potential public well being concern extra rapidly and successfully.
However variants can seem anyplace within the globe and we’re grateful to scientists in South Africa who reported quickly the identification of a variant, now known as Omicron. On this weblog we describe the investigations that we undertake to characterise and perceive a brand new variant.
How we’re lowering the unfold of the Omicron variant
As quickly as the brand new variant was recognized in South Africa, we put in place a variety of measures to establish any potential circumstances and forestall an infection from spreading. Once we establish a case, the contacts are traced, examined and requested to self-isolate. We’ve performed focused testing in particular areas the place identified Omicron circumstances have visited to establish and management any potential unfold. We’ve additionally suggested on public well being measures, akin to carrying masks, to cut back the danger of transmission.
Entire genome sequencing (WGS) is a crucial element of our surveillance to establish circumstances of various variants, following a constructive PCR check consequence. This course of can take a couple of days, so we use a marker often known as ‘S gene goal failure’ to establish potential Omicron circumstances quickly and inform public well being motion. The Omicron variant of the virus has quite a lot of mutations which imply that the S gene doesn’t present up in PCR outcomes. This known as S gene dropout or S gene goal failure and it may be used as marker for this variant pending the WGS outcomes.
We work carefully with companions globally, by sharing our COVID-19 genomic sequencing information internationally by way of GISAID and different platforms and by supporting different nations to strengthen their very own genomic surveillance.
Fast analysis to grasp the general public well being impression of Omicron
Scientists have used samples from the primary constructive circumstances of Omicron recognized within the UK to isolate the virus. They do that by incubating the supplies containing the virus with cells and rising the virus within the laboratory. The virus is incubated to permit it to multiply. This could take as much as seven days or typically longer and it leads to a small quantity of “virus inventory”. As soon as they’ve produced the virus inventory, our scientists can undertake the important danger evaluation research to grasp the dangers from the brand new variant.
These research which are actually underway for Omicron in UKHSA embody:
- Analysis of Lateral Circulation Units (LFDs). These are also referred to as fast antigen assessments. The analysis is carried out by utilizing samples containing completely different quantities of virus and including them to completely different LFDs to verify if they can detect this variant. We additionally set up the sensitivity of every particular person LFD by measuring the quantity of virus it may detect to generate a constructive response. This data is used to be sure that we’re utilizing the very best LFD assessments in our testing programmes within the UK.
- Analysis of the vaccine effectiveness That is carried out utilizing reside virus neutralisation research. These research are carried out by mixing serum from a person who has been vaccinated with the virus now we have remoted and including the combination to cells. We will then assess if the serum from the vaccinated individual can cease the virus from infecting the cells and due to this fact inflicting illness. Sera from vaccinated people ought to include antibodies that bind to the virus and inhibit it from infecting our cells. We do that research for all vaccines and for combos of vaccines (so for individuals who obtain a special vaccine for every dose, or for his or her booster) to verify our vaccination programme delivers the utmost potential safety to folks within the UK.
- Reinfection with a brand new variant. Along with the research on vaccine effectiveness, we additionally check whether or not people who’ve been contaminated up to now with different variants can cease the brand new variant from infecting their cells to grasp if previous an infection provides some safety in opposition to Omicron.
All of those assessments are carried out as rapidly and successfully as potential, and underneath strict containment to make sure the security of our scientists and the general public.
These vital research take a little bit of time. Within the meantime, as we will see, the COVID-19 pandemic is much from over and it’s actually vital that everybody follows public well being recommendation to guard themselves and others in opposition to all types of COVID-19 an infection.
The perfect methods to do that are to:
- get totally vaccinated
- put on a masks in enclosed areas and preserve social distancing
- guarantee rooms are ventilated by opening home windows and doorways
- proceed to usually check significantly earlier than socialising in teams or visiting susceptible folks
- isolate and get a PCR check you probably have signs or check constructive on a lateral circulation system check.