The first cases of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus have been detected in the United Kingdom after scientists in South Africa have highlighted it as a potentially worrying new strain.
What tests are used to detect Omicron?
Swabs from PCR tests, which are sent to a lab for analysis, detect whether people are infected with coronavirus or not.
Depending on the lab to which the swabs are sent, scientists can see if Delta or Omicron, or another variant, appears to be causing the infection.
Between a third and a half of UK labs, but not all, have the technology to do so.
PCR tests are the ones you can order for free on the government website if you have symptoms, or ask a private company if you need one to travel. There are many different brands.
How do we know Omicron is in the UK?
The results of PCR tests that could be Omicron have been sent to a laboratory for a complete genetic analysis, using a technique known as genomic sequencing.
This has confirmed that some people have actually become infected with the latest variant, and they and their contacts will be told if it is Omicron using contact tracking systems, such as NHS Test and Trace.
This laboratory analysis of the genetic material of the virus is key to detecting variants and finding out how they act.
There are likely to be many more cases of the variant already in the UK, but they have not yet been detected, as this process may take a couple of weeks to complete.
The dominant variant of coronavirus remains Delta, which is responsible for about 40,000 new cases each day in the UK.
Do sideflow tests detect Omicron?
Fast or lateral flow tests, which can be used at home, may not tell you which variant you are infected with, but it is still believed that they can tell you if you are negative or positive, even with Omicron.
What is the difference between Omicron and other variants?
The Omicron variant has many different mutations that have not been seen before, and many that have.
A large number of them are found in the ear protein of the virus, which is the target of most vaccines, and this is the main concern.
In standard tests, Omicron has what is known as “S gene abandonment” (which Delta, in most cases, does not have), and this gives a clue that it could be the new variant.
But not all “S gene dropouts” will necessarily be omicron; complete genomic sequencing is required to be safe.
What role does genomic sequencing play?
Up to 20% of swabs with positive test results in the UK each week, or around 60,000 cases, are sent for genomic sequencing.
Looking closely at the genetic material provided, scientists can confirm whether someone is positive with Omicron or the Delta that is already widely circulating.
This process only provides information about the swabs being analyzed, but using these results, scientists can estimate what proportion of new cases could be the new variant.
Scientists in the UK and South Africa are at the forefront of this technology, which is why most new variants have been detected in these countries. But that doesn’t always mean they originated there.
What do we know about Omicron?
Very little is known about how the variant acts or what threat it might pose.
For example, it is unclear whether it spreads more easily, whether it makes people worse off than other variants, or whether vaccine protection will be less than previously thought.
But on paper it seems worrisome, which is why governments are acting quickly in case this is bad news.
What are the symptoms of Omicron?
So far, in South Africa, most infected people are young and their symptoms have been mild.
There are some suggestions that the variant may be causing some slightly different symptoms in Delta, such as aches and pains, and no loss of taste or smell, but it is too early to say for sure.
For now, the World Health Organization says there is no evidence that Omicron’s symptoms are different from other variants.
This means that a new cough, a fever and a loss of taste or smell are still the three main symptoms to consider.
Hospitals in South Africa are seeing more young people admitted with more severe symptoms, but many are not vaccinated or have only received one dose.
This suggests that getting two doses and one booster dose is a good way to protect yourself from the disease caused by the new variant, as well as all other variants.