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Investigating Omicron: what UKHSA is doing now

Final month, a brand new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 an infection named Omicron was recognized and international locations all over the world are taking motion to establish circumstances and outbreaks and management the unfold whereas we be taught extra.

All viruses naturally change and evolve over time, and SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 illness, is not any exception. Typically, modifications and mutations end in new variants that could be sufficiently totally different biologically to affect the severity of an infection, susceptibility to an infection, or transmissibility of the virus. The modifications can doubtlessly additionally have an effect on the efficacy of our diagnostic checks or vaccines.

This potential to mutate is among the greatest challenges we face when responding to an outbreak of a virus. That is why we have now elevated our genomic sequencing capability, to strengthen our surveillance and assist us establish new variants of potential public well being concern extra shortly and successfully.

However variants can seem anyplace within the globe and we’re grateful to scientists in South Africa who reported quickly the identification of a variant, now known as Omicron. On this weblog we describe the investigations that we undertake to characterise and perceive a brand new variant.

How we’re lowering the unfold of the Omicron variant

As quickly as the brand new variant was recognized in South Africa, we put in place a variety of measures to establish any doable circumstances and stop an infection from spreading. After we establish a case, the contacts are traced, examined and requested to self-isolate. We’ve performed focused testing in particular places the place recognized Omicron circumstances have visited to establish and management any doable unfold. We’ve additionally suggested on public well being measures, corresponding to carrying masks, to scale back the chance of transmission.

Complete genome sequencing (WGS) is a vital part of our surveillance to establish circumstances of various variants, following a optimistic PCR take a look at consequence. This course of can take a couple of days, so we use a marker often known as ‘S gene goal failure’ to establish doable Omicron circumstances quickly and inform public well being motion. The Omicron variant of the virus has numerous mutations which imply that the S gene doesn’t present up in PCR outcomes. This known as S gene dropout or S gene goal failure and it may be used as marker for this variant pending the WGS outcomes.

We work intently with companions globally, by sharing our COVID-19 genomic sequencing information internationally by means of GISAID and different platforms and by supporting different international locations to strengthen their very own genomic surveillance.

Speedy analysis to grasp the general public well being affect of Omicron

Scientists have used samples from the primary optimistic circumstances of Omicron recognized within the UK to isolate the virus. They do that by incubating the supplies containing the virus with cells and rising the virus within the laboratory. The virus is incubated to permit it to multiply. This will take as much as seven days or generally longer and it ends in a small quantity of “virus inventory”. As soon as they’ve produced the virus inventory, our scientists can undertake the crucial danger evaluation research to grasp the dangers from the brand new variant.

These research which at the moment are underway for Omicron in UKHSA embrace:

  • Analysis of Lateral Movement Gadgets (LFDs). These are also called fast antigen checks. The analysis is carried out by utilizing samples containing totally different quantities of virus and including them to totally different LFDs to verify if they’re able to detect this variant. We additionally set up the sensitivity of every particular person LFD by measuring the quantity of virus it could actually detect to generate a optimistic response. This info is used to be sure that we’re utilizing the absolute best LFD checks in our testing programmes within the UK.
  • Analysis of the vaccine effectiveness That is carried out utilizing dwell virus neutralisation research. These research are carried out by mixing serum from a person who has been vaccinated with the virus we have now remoted and including the combination to cells. We will then assess if the serum from the vaccinated particular person can cease the virus from infecting the cells and due to this fact inflicting illness. Sera from vaccinated people ought to include antibodies that bind to the virus and inhibit it from infecting our cells. We do that examine for all vaccines and for combos of vaccines (so for individuals who obtain a distinct vaccine for every dose, or for his or her booster) to verify our vaccination programme delivers the utmost doable safety to folks within the UK.
  • Reinfection with a brand new variant. Along with the research on vaccine effectiveness, we additionally take a look at whether or not people who’ve been contaminated up to now with different variants can cease the brand new variant from infecting their cells to grasp if previous an infection provides some safety in opposition to Omicron.

All of those checks are carried out as shortly and successfully as doable, and underneath strict containment to make sure the security of our scientists and the general public.

Defending ourselves

These essential research take a little bit of time. Within the meantime, as we are able to see, the COVID-19 pandemic is way from over and it’s actually essential that everybody follows public well being recommendation to guard themselves and others in opposition to all types of COVID-19 an infection.

The perfect methods to do that are to:

  • get totally vaccinated
  • put on a masks in enclosed areas and keep social distancing
  • guarantee rooms are ventilated by opening home windows and doorways
  • proceed to usually take a look at notably earlier than socialising in teams or visiting weak folks
  • isolate and get a PCR take a look at when you’ve got signs or take a look at optimistic on a lateral move gadget take a look at.

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Maga Shopy
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