There's a lot of information out there about where we're at with Omicron at the moment, especially around the severity of infection and if this variant will see an end to Covid-19. We spoke to immunologist Prof Christine Loscher from DCU to get some clarity on the current findings about Omicron.

What do we now know about Omicron?

"It's the new kid on the block, it's into its seventh week on the radar. We know that it is highly mutated so it's very different to what we've seen before. It has a significant number of mutations over and above the rest of the variants. Many of those have been in the spike protein and that spike protein is what we're vaccinating and making antibodies too.

"That changes an awful lot. The antibodies that we're making with our vaccines are not quite as good as they would've been against Alpha and Delta. That's what we call immune evasion, which means that Omicron is good at avoiding previous immunity because it's changed its look so much, that our antibodies just don't attach on and aren't as sticky, if you like.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Brendan O'Connor Show, Cork GP and Covid advisor to the College of General Practitioners Dr. Mary Favier on where we're at in relation to the Omicron variant

"That said, we have boosters. What boosters do is that they up the amount of antibodies you have, so even if it's not as sticky, the fact that you have more of it actually gives you more protection. That's the value of the booster."

What about transmission?

"If you look at the different variants, they've all become way more transmissible than the original variant and this has been the most transmissible. The WHO said probably half the population of Europe are going to get it in the next few weeks. It's five or six times more transmissible than Delta.

"The offset is there's a bit of a trade-off when viruses highly mutate to be better at causing infection. We think the trade-off here is that while Omicron is highly transmissible, it changes how well it infects when it gets into your body and is presenting as a little bit of a different infection.

"It's not as good at getting deep in your lungs, so it's staying very much in the upper respiratory tract, which is why the symptoms seem to be runny noses, sore, throat, head, cold type stuff. We're literally seeing across the globe anywhere that Omicron is dominant that people are not presenting with that deep lung infection, that pneumonia that we would've seen with other variants."

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Prof Christine Loscher on changes to close contact rules

So more people are getting sick, but the infection is often not as severe?

"Yes, we're getting a much larger scale of infection that we have ever seen before, but the translation of that into severe illness is not the way we've seen it before. In fact, it is presenting as a much milder infection in most people. There are obviously always going to be people in the population who are more vulnerable people, who will do as well. Our vaccine programme and our booster programme has given us a level of protection that is also adding to why the infections are milder.

"I think the combination of vaccines and boosters and the fact that this is a different type of infection means hospitalisations and ICU admittances are not what we would've seen with previous variants. And that's a very positive thing to be able to say."

On the other hand, what don't we know yet about Omicron?

"What we don't know is if it is going to give us any different outcomes in terms of recovery, particularly in terms of long Covid. One of the things we've seen with all of the other variants is that some people, even with mild infections, have had lingering symptoms such as fatigue, muscle pain, trouble sleeping, this kind of brain fog. Those symptoms might persist for weeks or months. We know from data coming out of the UK that the percentage of people in different age groups actually varies greatly. It could be anywhere from 2% to 10%.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Claire Byrne, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove from the World Health Organisation on the Omicron wave

"We don't know yet if Omicron is going to give us any different profile of outcome. We think that a lot of Long Covid is about this chronic underlying inflammation that persists after infection. The fact that Omicron doesn't infect deep in the lungs might lead you to believe that it doesn't cause as much chronic inflammation. If that is true, then you may be in a situation where long Covid is not as much as a factor of Omicron as it was with previous variants."

"The other thing we don't know is how long will you get some immunity from Omicron if you've had an infection with Omicron? Does immunity last, or are you open to reinfection in a very short space of time? That's going to be a really key decider of whether or not we go into this surge and come out of it and then go back into another surge. Population immunity is very high and the virus has nowhere else left to go so that reinfection question is going to be really key in determining where Omicron will leave us."

Are there positives we can take from where we are at right now?

"If we're trying to look at the positives here, a side effect of Omicon is that it is contributing to the wall of immunity that we're building across the population. Our immunity wall is building because of our vaccination programme, our booster programme and the fact that we're starting to vaccinate other age groups. We're now starting to vaccinate 5 to 11 year olds and our uptake in 12 to 15 year olds and even 16 to 18 year olds has increased in the last few months.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, why Greek is used to name variants

"If we deal with Omicron as the key variant globally in the next six months, then the wall of immunity that we're building with infection is very specific to Omicron and that might give us a huge level of population immunity, which means that when the virus has nowhere left to go. We may be in a situation in a few months time where we have very few case numbers, a very high level of population immunity and a real opportunity to return to a huge amount of normality in everyday life.

"That depends on reinfection. It depends on whether or not we get over of this surge in the space of time before any reinfection might happen. It also depends on everything outside of Ireland - what is going to be the vaccination population immunity across the globe?

"We need to be clear that we don't in any way use infection to generate population immunity. That's not a goal, it's not what we should be doing, it's not good public health strategy or public health action at all. But this infection is building our immunity and that is a fact. It potentially leaves us in a very good position. I would've always predicted that we would have some normality in this pandemic potentially by March and I think we could really be on track for that if we have built our immunity to a sufficient level.

"The curveball is what happens if another variant arises, and where does that leave us? One of the things that we do know is we now have three advantages that we didn't have before. We know pharma companies can tweak vaccines to specific variants very quickly. Our T-cell immunity that we have built through vaccination and infection will protect us from severe illness in terms of another variant. Fnally, we have a new tool in our kit for 2022, and that's the antivirals. All of those things put us in a very good position for this year."


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ