Virus expert predicts Omicron will start 'outcompeting' Delta

Prof Paul Hunter of the UEA's Norwich medical school. Photo: Bill Smith

Paul Hunter has said the Omicron Covid variant will soon be outperforming Delta. - Credit: Archant © 2013

UEA virus expert Paul Hunter says Omicron will be the dominant Covid variant in the UK within a month, and predicted that there were already more than 1,000 cases in the country - about three times the number of known infections.

Professor Hunter, from the university's School of Medicine, said the strain was already spreading quickly and would start "outcompeting" Delta, which has been dominant.

However, he said it was still too early to say how harmful Omicron was.

The latest figures show there are currently 336 known cases in the UK.

Prof Hunter told BBC Breakfast it was not clear how evidence emerging from South Africa, where the variant was first observed, would translate to the UK, which has a far more vaccinated population.

“How it’s likely to spread in the UK still uncertain, but I think the early signs are that it will probably spread quite quickly and probably start outcompeting Delta and become the dominant variant probably within the next weeks or a month or so at least," Prof Hunter said.

“The big remaining question is actually how harmful it is if you do get Covid with this Omicron variant, and that’s the question that we’re struggling to answer at the moment.”

There have been concerns the new variant could see further restrictions imposed potentially threatening office Christmas parties and large scale events.

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He said travel restrictions would have a minor impact, adding: “One of the problems with travel restrictions like this is that it then de-motivates other countries to actually be open about their own situations for fear of what they would see as economic sanctions.

"So I think once the infection is spreading within a country, then border restrictions don’t really add anything.

“We’ve known that long before Covid. This has been knowledge that we’ve had for decades, if not centuries, to be honest.”

During the interview he was asked if the UK was closer to the start of the pandemic than the end as a result of the new variant,  to which he replied: “I wouldn’t necessarily agree totally with that. I think this virus is around [and] going to be around forever.

“The last time we had a big coronavirus outbreak we think was 130 years ago and that virus is still circulating, we get infected with it fairly regularly, every three to six years, and it basically just causes the common cold.

“That is likely the way that this pandemic is going, so we will be repeatedly infected with Covid, we will be repeatedly infected with new variants but by and large, they’ll just be another cause of the common cold and at that point, we’ll stop worrying about it, but we’re not we’re not quite there yet.”

On potential Christmas curbs imposed by the government, Prof Hunter said he felt that December 25 was actually safer than the average working day as people interact with strangers less.

He said: “The thing about Christmas Day itself is that when we meet with our families, we actually interact with fewer people over the Christmas break than we do in our normal working week.

“Often respiratory viruses like Covid spread less rapidly through society while we’re on our Christmas break than they do at other times… So personally, I don’t think the primary focus of the Christmas break, where you meet with your family on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, is under threat.

“Clearly if you’re a vulnerable person, and if you’ve not been vaccinated or you’ve not had your booster then think twice about maybe going to the office party, that sort of thing, but in terms of the Christmas Day and surrounding days, I don’t think that is really under threat.”