Boosters are vital in our fight against the Omicron variant

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Researchers found the variant was five times more likely to cause re-infection than Delta, and largely evades immunity from past infection or two vaccine doses.

But they estimated that with a critical third dose, the vaccines would remain at least 80 percent effective at preventing severe Covid-19.

The figures came as the UK reported 93,045 new coronavirus cases – a record for the third consecutive day – and 111 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.

The modelling by Imperial College London estimated that Omicron may be just as severe as Delta, contradicting early reports of milder illness.

The level of protection against catching the virus afforded by past infection dropped to just 19 percent for Omicron. For vaccination, protection after two doses also fell to under 20 percent. After a booster it stood at 55-80 percent.

Prof Neil Ferguson said: “This level of immune evasion means that Omicron poses a major, imminent threat to public health.”

The team predicted that vaccine efficacy against severe disease and hospitalisation would hold up better. At two months after a booster, it may drop from 96.5 percent for Delta to between 80 and 86 percent for Omicron.

Prof Azra Ghani, chair in infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial, said this was still a good amount of protection on an individual level.

But she warned: “The difficulty is at the population perspective, that could still mean a large number of people requiring hospitalisation.

“It’s quite likely that those hospitalisations will be less severe and will have better outcomes but it’s that strain on the health system that really matters.”

If Omicron has similar severity to Delta and transmission surges, Dr Ghani said it could cause peaks infections and deaths that exceed previous waves.

She added: “Countries need to prepare, they need to try and target booster doses to the highest risk groups first and ensure high protection in those groups. It may also be necessary to include some other interventions…such as face-mask wearing and social distancing.”

Dr Clive Dix, former chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, who was not involved in the research, said the findings should not be over-interpreted. “The conclusions made are based on making assumptions about Omicron where we still don’t have sufficient data,” he said.

“Some of their conclusions are different to the data emerging from South Africa in that the vaccines are holding up well against severe disease and death at present.” Daily Covid hospital admissions in London – the epicentre of UK Omicron cases – have increased by half in a week. Some 201 patients were admitted to wards in the capital on Wednesday, up from 132 a week earlier and 114 a fortnight ago.

The British Medical Association has warned that almost 50,000 NHS staff may be off sick by Christmas Day if cases continue to double every three days. In a worst-case scenario that figure could hit 130,000, leading to “devastating consequences”, and it urged the Government to recall MPs next week to introduce tougher restrictions.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA council chair, said: “These would mean cancelling large indoor gatherings, reintroduction of the 2m social distancing rule and sending a strong message to the public to limit social mixing, especially ahead of Christmas when we know people will want to see their families and loved ones.” Shoppers can get their booster at 2,900 vaccination clinics this weekend, including pop-up sites at Christmas markets, retail centres and sports venues.

These include Chester Cathedral, the Liverpool Christmas Ice Festival, Chelsea FC’s Stamford Bridge stadium and Sandown Park, Bath, and Chelmsford City racecourses.

NHS national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said: “With Omicron cases soaring and two doses of vaccine not providing the protection we need, it’s vital to get a booster – for you, your family and friends.”

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said: “You can grab a jab from a shopping centre whilst you’re buying presents, or at a Christmas market whilst you’re enjoying the festivities, or at a sports stadium whilst you see the grounds first-hand.”

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Omicron is here and it’s not going away any time soon. It is much more transmissible than previous strains and probably has some ability to evade existing immunity.

Infections have skyrocketed with reported cases having broken records not once, not twice, but three times in the last three days. This isn’t a fourth wave, it’s a tsunami.

Hospitalisations are rising across the country, particularly in London which is ahead of other regions in this surge. The jury is still out as to whether Omicron is more or less severe. It’s too early to tell from UK data.

But even if half as severe as Delta, hospital admissions could be higher than last January.

Schools are hotbeds of transmission. We should use the holidays to improve ventilation or use filters to reduce transmission. If schools close in January, it will be a huge betrayal.

The hospitality sector is already struggling with cancelled bookings and staff off sick.

The Government is not stepping in to help. Rishi Sunak is missing in action. The most sensible thing to give people the best shot at having a normal Christmas and to protect businesses is to reduce the spread of Covid by restricting all indoor hospitality until

Christmas – and for the Government to pick up the tab.

Boris Johnson has indicated that he is unwilling to support our struggling hospitality sector. Other sectors too will struggle to cope with lots of missing staff.

Many will be forced to close but while the restrictions are informal they cannot access support.

The economies that do best during the pandemic are the countries who control Covid.

We need to act now to protect the health of our nation and our people’s livelihoods.

  • Dr Kit Yates – Mathematical Biologist, University of Bath

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