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'No evidence' Omicron more severe says South African lab which first discovered variant

'From what we’ve seen so far, from the patients and doctors we have been in discussion with, the symptoms are mild currently'
Photo: Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne.

Photo: Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne.

Eoghan Moloney

The head of the South African lab which first discovered the new Omicron variant has said early indications are that it is “not more severe” than previous strains of the virus.

This comes as a person in Laois who has recently returned from South Africa and is experiencing Covid-19 symptoms is awaiting a PCR test, according to the Irish Times.

The newspaper reports that a woman who did not want to be named has been trying to organise a PCR test in Laois but test centre appointments were booked out.

She took two antigen tests that came back negative upon developing Covid symptoms last week. The woman is self-isolating at home upon HSE request and will receive a PCR test imminently.

The woman also received a text from the NHS to inform her she is a close contact of a case that was found on her flight home.

Dr Alison Glass, head of the Lancet lab in Johannesburg, said that most cases identified in South Africa are mild, as is the case with all previous strains, but added they have seen hospitalisations.

“From what we’ve seen so far, from the patients and doctors we have been in discussion with, the symptoms are mild currently. They are similar to symptoms we’ve seen from other Covid-19 variants.

“We are starting to see some hospitalisations but that is probably just a factor of the number of cases we’re seeing but as yet, there’s no evidence to suggest Omicron causes more severe disease than previous variants,” Dr Glass told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

Dr Glass said the variant was discovered due to the S-gene dropout that was appearing in PCR test results in early November.

This does not happen with Delta - the previously dominant strain in South Africa - so it intrigued the scientists and led them to monitor the situation. This led to the discovery of Omicron a number of days later.

“It has been quite a substantial rise over the period of 2-3 weeks. South Africa had been in a rather low prevalence period for the last two months… but in the last 2-3 weeks we have seen quite a rapid increase in positivity rates,” Dr Glass said.

Dr Glass said it is “a little early” to make any conclusions about Omicron’s resistance to vaccines. She said cases have been identified in vaccinated people but symptoms were either mild or there were no symptoms at all.

Studies are underway to determine whether pre-existing immunity provides protection against this new variant.

Professor Fidelma Fitzpatrick, Head of Clinical Microbiology at the Royal College of Surgeons Ireland has said she “absolutely” agrees it’s likely that Omicron is already in Ireland.

“We exist in a global community and with air travel and the way we live our lives, it’s inevitable we’re going to get cases in Ireland,” Prof Fitzpatrick told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

Prof Fitzpatrick said it was important to understand where the boom in cases in South Africa have stemmed from; whether they are down to superspreader events or due to consistent person to person transmission.

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