Experts from Imperial are advancing understanding of the Omicron variant and how we can protect against it as the UK’s booster rollout gathers speed.
As case numbers reach a record 88,000 in one day, here’s what Imperial experts had to say this week.
Record UK case numbers
The UK saw its highest number of daily COVID infections reported this week, when 88,376 new cases were recorded on Thursday – a figure that has been driven by a surge in Omicron infections.
Just because you’ve had COVID before, it’s not going to protect you against Omicron. Professor Neil Ferguson School of Public Health
Professor Peter Openshaw, Professor of Experimental Medicine at Imperial, and Professor Neil Ferguson, Director of Imperial’s MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis (MRC GIDA), both spoke to BBC Radio 4’s PM programme on Wednesday night to discuss the sharp rise in cases.
Professor Ferguson told PM that people who have previously been infected with Alpha or Delta “probably only have about 20 per cent protection against reinfection” from the new variant.
He added: “Just because you’ve had COVID before, it’s not going to protect you [from reinfection] against Omicron.”
Earlier this week, Professor Ferguson also told The Guardian that the Omicron variant had the potential to cause up to 10,000 hospitalisations a day if it is as virulent as Delta as he warned the UK was already seeing a “very explosive wave of infection”.
However, Professor Wendy Barclay, Head of the Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial, told the newspaper on Tuesday that it was too soon to know the severity of disease caused by the variant.
Ambitious booster targets
This week the Government announced it would accelerate its booster programme, aiming to offer booster jabs to everyone over 18 before the end of the year.
The Government pledged to deliver up to a million jabs a day in order to deliver the ambitious target.
Many in the healthcare sector are doubtful that the country will be able to reach the target set by the Government. Speaking on BBC Newsnight (starts at 19.30 mins) on Monday 13 December, Professor Azeem Majeed, Professor of Primary Care and Public Health at Imperial, said it’s good to mobilise people and the NHS, but at the same time the target should be realistic.
He said: “We will increase the pace of the programme but I can’t see us reaching a million vaccines a day for some time. At the moment, we’re doing around 400,000 vaccines a day on average, so a million a day implies a nearly three-fold increase from our current rate. Given that this plan was announced yesterday evening, this is probably too radical a target.”
Professor Majeed also answered important questions about the Omicron variant and offered reassurance about the safety of COVID vaccines as he encouraged people to get their boosters in an interview with the Daily Mirror.
He said: “Research has shown that Covid-19 vaccines, including boosters, are very safe with only a very small risk of serious side-effects. The risks from a COVID-19 infection are far higher than from vaccination.”
Read the full Q&A with Professor Majeed in the Daily Mirror.
More support for boosters
The Omicron variant is hampering the effectiveness of current vaccines, it was reported this week, with two doses offering almost no protection against infection although they should still greatly reduce the risk of needing hospital care.
Various studies have shown that the antibodies a person has after two doses of a COVID vaccine were much less effective against Omicron.
Professor Danny Altmann, Professor of Immunology at Imperial, told the BBC that people with just two doses were left with "absolutely zilch" and were a "sitting duck for infection"
But booster jabs improve both the quality and quantity of antibodies, offering more protection.
Professor Charles Bangham, from the Institute of Infection at Imperial, told the Financial Times: "The purpose of the booster is to increase the strength of the antibody and T-cell immunity, so that if you are reinfected, it becomes a trivial infection: you are less unwell, and you are less likely to transmit it to others."
Cut waiting time to speed up roll-out
Queues of up to five hours were reported at walk-in centres, as adults across the UK scrambled to get a booster jab.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid this week said that he was reviewing the waiting time for observation after COVID-19 vaccination, in order to speed up booster efforts.
In a tweet shared by the Telegraph, Professor Azeem Majeed wrote: "If the Government wants to increase the number of Covid-19 vaccinations, then the MHRA needs to urgently review the 15-minute waiting period after vaccination.
"This substantially reduces the efficiency and throughput of vaccine clinics, as well as vaccinations for the housebound."
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