A Covid Christmas? What Is Omicron and how Does It Affect Our Holidays? By Lia Goldman
Omicron’s Christmas message is: Covid is not yet done with us. Omicron is different from the other Covid-19 variants. It has as many as 60 mutations from the original Wuhan strain, much more than the delta variant.
South Africa was the first to experience a rise in Covid-19 cases at the end of November. It rapidly detected the new mutation thanks to its effective genomic sequencing capability and its willingness to cooperate with international partners. This shows once again that international cooperation is crucial to fight the pandemic. The Omicron variant has been detected in all continents but Antarctica, in a total of 85 countries. As you may have noticed, the UK is one of them.
The UK, Omicron and Plan B
The UK saw 78 000 new cases on 15th December, marking the highest number of daily cases since the beginning of the pandemic. Today, there are over 89 000 new cases. Plan B was announced on 8th December. This set of measures was prepared in case rising Covid cases were going to put unsustainable stress on the NHS. With Omicron entering the scene, this is likely to be the case.
Here is what Plan B essentially says: All essential and non-essential shops and venues remain open, but you have to wear face masks in closed public spaces, such as cinemas, theatres and public transport. It might get a bit more sweaty while hurrying around with Christmas shopping bags, but it is more lenient than in the Netherlands and Denmark where shops have closed. In fact, the Netherlands is in a full lockdown until 14th January. All non-essential shops, gyms, bars, restaurants, and schools are closed. The disruption of Christmas plans is particularly hard on shop and restaurant owners who had little to no time to adapt.
Also, remember that a lot of indoor venues, including night clubs, require the NHS Covid pass. Plan B encourages everyone to work from home if possible. If you are in Scotland, know that employers now have a legal duty to let you work from home.
What does Plan B say about being in contact with someone who tests positive? If vaccinated, you do not have to self-isolate. It is however mandatory to test on a daily
basis for seven days after being in contact with the person who tests positive. Self isolation remains a must for people who test positive or develop symptoms, and for unvaccinated people who are a contact of a Covid case.
All in all, Plan B allows for leeway to enjoy the holidays. This is important for mental health, but it also means that being cautious and getting vaccinated are crucial to stay healthy and keep others safe. While Johnson advises people to not cancel holiday plans, he encourages testing before meetings and celebrations. London and Paris have however canceled their official New Year’s fireworks.
Other countries are also strengthening Covid-19 measures, and several imposed restrictions on travel from the UK to delay the propagation of Omicron. Travel bans significantly slow down the spread of infections, and allow for more time to develop medical countermeasures and strategies to control local outbreaks.
What does this mean for travel from the UK? If you have not yet left the UK, but wish to travel to your home country, you can do so as long as you have family there or are a national. France and Germany for instance have imposed strict travel rules, but they only affect tourism and non-essential travel. Some countries might require a negative PCR test (not self-administered and for some not more than 48 or 24 hours old).
Other Countries' Handling of the Variant
Mutations like the Omicron variant will continue to surface, so for now, we need to keep tweaking the vaccines. While many countries are resorting to mandatory vaccination or restrictions, it seems to come naturally to others. Portugal has fully vaccinated around 86% of its population. Austria on the other hand is trying to boost vaccinations by only allowing the unvaccinated to leave home for work and other essential purposes. Latvia has gone a step further by requiring a vaccination or a recovery certificate to go to work. Swiss voters are embracing the restrictions for the unvaccinated for restaurants and indoor events. They approved the 'COVID-19 law’ in a referendum at the end of November.
Several countries are also extending vaccinations to children. Greece and France have just approved vaccines for children aged 5 to 11. From 15 January, adults in France will need a booster to have a valid vaccine pass. Greek citizens who are aged over 60, have to get vaccinated by 16 January or pay a €100 fine for every month they remain
It is useful to understand Omicron’s origins to predict where more variants might come from and to more generally understand where this never ending story is heading. There are three hypotheses explaining how the ‘original’ virus mutated into Omicron. The virus might have been transmitted from a human to an animal, likely a rodent, then mutated in the host, and jumped back to humans.
Another hypothesis is that Omicron emerged when a Covid-19 patient was treated with the drug molnupiravir. This is a drug that was developed to treat hepathits C. It is being tested as a Covid treatment and has shown success due to its mutagene properties. It creates small errors in the coronavirus’ genetic code to stop it from reproducing. Some suggest that this resulted in Omicron, while others say that the virus is generally unable to reproduce after being treated with molnupiravir because there are too many errors in its genome.
The third explanation involves a patient with a weakened immune system. Several viruses are known to have mutated when an immunocompromised patient was treated with antibodies or anti viral drugs. In such a case, a virus not only survives but mutates to adapt to the treatment. You might have heard from the Covid variants that evolved from the ‘London patient’ or ‘Boston patient’. Omicron could be the latest in this line of variants.
The best we can do is stay well-informed, get our boosters, wear masks and get tested on a regular basis. The holidays should encourage gratefulness and a shared sense of well-being and solidarity. Tending to our mental health while being careful to protect those who are more vulnerable is more important than ever in light of the new variant.
Have a look at our sources if you want to know more about:
Daily Covid-19 cases reported by Johns Hopkins University: https://github.com/ CSSEGISandData/COVID-19
Data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control: https://
Study by Wei et al. suggesting Omicron originated from a mouse : https:// www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.12.14.472632v1
Use of Molnupiravir against Covid-19: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/ NEJMoa2116044>](<https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2116044
Immune evasion of viruses: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12439615/