Imperial College London

Omicron - latest findings and commentary from Imperial experts

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CGI picture of the COVID-19 virus

Experts from Imperial College London and worldwide are working around the clock to understand the rapidly spreading Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Here’s what our experts had to say this week.

Plan B

This Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed that England will implement 'Plan B' measures in light of the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

The measures, which include working from home where possible, compulsory face masks in most public indoor areas, and the proposed introduction of NHS passes for nightclubs, are intended to slow the spread of the variant and reduce pressure on the NHS, while buying time to deliver more boosters.

Earlier that day, Imperial’s Provost Ian Walmlsey had instructed staff and students to work from home where possible.

Professor Peter Openshaw, from Imperial’s National Heart & Lung Institute, welcomed the new measures on Channel 4 News on Thursday (9 December) but warned that he felt 150 deaths a day in the UK was an "unacceptably high number".

Listen to Professor Openshaw's interview on YouTube (from 3 mins 40 seconds).

Professor Peter Openshaw speaks to Channel 4 News about the Omicron variant

Omicron cases rising rapidly  

Ahead of the Government’s Plan B announcement, Professor Neil Ferguson warned that Omicron COVID cases in the UK were "doubling every two to three days."

Professor Ferguson, Director of Imperial’s MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis and Jameel Institute , told The Times on Tuesday (7 December) that Omicron was likely to be the dominant variant in the UK before Christmas.

Official data suggests that more than a thousand people a day are now being infected with the Omicron variant in Britain.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday (8 December), he said: “It’s the same if not faster than we saw with the original strain of the virus in March last year, so it is a concern".

Listen to the recording on BBC Sounds (from 1hr 17 mins).Stock photo of Imperial's Professor Neil Ferugson

Three doses are better than two

This week, a preliminary study by Pfizer-BioNTech suggested that a third shot of their COVID-19 vaccine offers protection against the Omicron variant, but two doses may not.

Similar results were found in a study from the Africa Health Research Institute in South Africa, which suggested that the effectiveness of two doses of the vaccine may be significantly reduced against the new variant.

The findings raise concerns that antibodies previously developed against SARS-CoV-2 may be less effective at neutralising the new Omicron strain.

Imperial experts say the studies underline the need for booster vaccines.

Referring to the protection conferred by three doses of the Pfizer vaccine against the Omicron variant, Professor Charles Bangham from the Institute of Infection at Imperial said: “These encouraging data provide strong support for the campaign to give three doses of vaccine.”

Professor Bangham noted that antibodies are not the only means by which the immune response protects against a virus. T cells also play a role and are likely to continue to provide a “good measure of protection against severe disease” even if we do see more Omicron breakthrough cases.

In response to the South African study, Professor Danny Altmann, Professor of Immunology at Imperial, said: “This new study offers a clear message about Omicron susceptibility, similar to Delta but more so: those who are unvaccinated, or even two-dose vaccinated, are likely to be highly vulnerable to infection.

“So, an even stronger argument for getting boosters as widely and rapidly as possible.”

The spike matters

An Imperial study that published last Friday (3 December) found that the first SARS-CoV-2 spike protein that a person is exposed to – through vaccination or infection – changes how their immune system responds to a new infection.

"What we’re saying is the simple answer of ‘let’s have a new tweak vaccine every six or nine months’ may not be the best way to go.” Professor Danny Altmann Professor of Immunology at Imperial College London

The study looked at ‘immune imprinting’ in vaccinated health workers in the UK who had been infected by different variants. The researchers said their findings may have implications for the development of future COVID-19 vaccines.

Author Professor Danny Altmann said: “I think that what we’re saying is the simple answer of saying ‘let’s have a new tweak vaccine every six or nine months’ may not be the best way to go.

“And sure, you could jump to tweak the vaccines for different parts of the world at regular intervals, but the take-home message is, it’s not as if you start with a blank sheet. Each time you start with a pre-existing [immune] repertoire.

“So we’d love to slow down and do the homework properly and try and find out which version of this is going to give you the best future-approved answer.”

Read more about what we know about the Omicron variant so far and insights from Imperial’s experts: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/232217/qa-imperial-experts-discuss-variant-omicron/

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Emily Head

Emily Head
Communications Division

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Email: e.head21@imperial.ac.uk

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Ryan O'Hare

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Deborah Evanson

Deborah Evanson
Communications Division

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