By AP journalists
The emergence of the new variant of the coronavirus known as Omicron has already had an impact on travel rules and triggered a return to the mandatory wearing of masks on public transport.
Some 246 cases of Omicron – also known as B.1.1.529 – were confirmed in the UK on Sunday.
But what do we know about the new strain so far and what could that mean for future restrictions?
– How would you know if you have contracted the Omicron strain?
People with symptoms of Covid-19 should take a PCR test, and scientists can determine which strain they have contracted if it is positive.
This requires genetic analysis in the laboratory and can take up to 14 days.
Not all UK labs are equipped with the technology to identify Omicron cases, meaning some parts of the country will be able to track the spread more easily than others.
Rapid or lateral flow tests can’t tell you which variant you have been infected with, but scientists believe they will always reflect a positive result if you have the Omicron variant.
When did Omicron first appear?
British scientists became aware of the new strain on November 23, after samples were uploaded to a coronavirus variant tracking website in South Africa, Hong Kong, and then Botswana.
The World Health Organization (WHO) designated it on November 26 as a “variant of concern” because it has several mutations that make it more difficult to predict its behavior.
How is Omicron different from other variants?
The last variant involves mutations in the virus spike protein, which is the part targeted by most vaccines.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), scientists differentiate Omicron from other variants by identifying patterns among three genes in positive results – the S gene, the ORF1ab gene, and the N gene.
Delta variant infections are generally positive for all three genes, while the Omicron variant is known to be negative for the S gene.
Is the Omicron more deadly or transmissible than the previous variants?
It is not clear whether Omicron is more transmissible compared to other variants, including the dominant strain Delta, according to the WHO.
The number of people testing positive for the coronavirus has increased in parts of South Africa affected by the variant, and studies have started to determine whether this is due to the fact that it is more easily transmitted.
It’s also unclear whether Omicron is likely to cause more death or serious illness, and understand that it will likely take several more weeks, the WHO said.
What are the symptoms of Omicron?
The WHO has said there is no evidence that the symptoms associated with Omicron are any different from those of other variants.
The first infections reported in South Africa were in college students with mild illness – but this is common among the younger age group for all variants.
The most common symptoms of Covid-19 are still cough, fever, and loss of smell or taste.
How many cases have been confirmed in the UK?
The UK Health Safety Agency said 86 more cases of Omicron had been confirmed in the UK on Sunday, 68 in England and 18 in Scotland, bringing the total to 246.
Professor Mark Woolhouse, who is a member of the Government’s Pandemic Influenza Modeling Scientific Group (Spi-M), said Omicron “is spreading fairly quickly” and the figure will increase.
What are the concerns about Omicron and when will we know if they are valid?
The transmissibility, the severity of the disease and the effectiveness of the vaccine are of concern.
The deputy chief medical officer for England, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, said scientists around the world agree that the Omicron variant is “of growing concern”.
He said there are still uncertainties about the transmissibility of the variant and its impact on the severity of the disease.
He declared that “the number of mutations present, already on the first principle, makes us fear a possible effect on the effectiveness of the vaccine”.
He clarified that there is “a lot more that we don’t know yet than things that we know” about the variant, but that he expects more to become clear in two weeks.
What is happening in the UK as scientists scramble to learn more about Omicron?
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) now recommends that all adults aged 18 to 39 be offered a Covid-19 booster dose, in descending order of age, to increase their level of protection .
Early evidence suggests that higher antibody levels may offer better protection against the variant.
Booster doses should be given no earlier than three months after people have received their second dose of an original vaccine, reducing the current six-month wait by three months.
Meanwhile, young people aged 12 to 15 should be offered a second dose of the Pfizer / BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, no earlier than 12 weeks after their first dose.
Have any new measures been introduced in the UK?
The government has tightened the rules for PCR testing for travelers returning to the UK and introduced quarantine rules for people from high-risk countries, as well as the return of face coverings to shops and in public transport in England.
It has also ramped up the Covid recall program to help slow the spread of the new variant.
Scottish Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Welsh Prime Minister Mark Drakeford have demanded that a stricter four-nation approach be taken.
Downing Street has rejected calls by Ms Sturgeon and Mr Drakeford for the period of travelers’ self-isolation to be extended until the result of a test on the eighth day after arriving in the UK.
The extension of the requirements would have a “detrimental effect” on the travel industry, No.10 said.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have travel rules in place for non-redlisted arrivals.
What do stricter Christmas rules mean?
Although there is no official ban on large gatherings, scientists have urged people to act with caution.
Professor Robert West, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviors (Spi-B), encouraged revelers to make “flexible” plans for the holiday period.
He told Sky News last week that he personally would not make plans “that involve gatherings that cannot be changed.”
Professor West said: “In other words, stay flexible. Make your plans, by all means, as I am, but do them in a way that means if the worst should happen, and we have to make sure people stay as far away from each other as possible, in whenever possible, then you can still enjoy the holiday period.
What about working from home?
England is the only country in the UK where working from home is not encouraged.
On Monday, Ms Sturgeon reminded Scots to “work from home if possible”.
The advice is the same in Northern Ireland, and homework is encouraged under current guidelines in Wales.
Earlier, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson said it was up to employers to decide the “right balance” for them, when it came to whether staff worked from home or in the office.
Jurisdiction over the coronavirus restrictions has devolved, meaning Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s policies apply to England and may differ from rules elsewhere in the UK.
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