At a press conference today, 10 Downing Street announced new measures to combat the potential spread of the Omicron variant in the UK.
The new variant of concern, which has already been found in the UK, Belgium, Hong Kong, Germany, the Netherlands and possibly also in Australia, will clearly require stricter measures to prevent it seeding across the country.
The press conference, which was, in some ways, two years too late, did nevertheless show that the UK has at least learned some lessons from the pandemic. The speed with which the red list for travel was updated is a promising sign that the UK is finally taking Sars-CoV-2 seriously.
Unfortunately, however, the drumbeat from the UK government was still about putting all their eggs in the single basket of vaccination rather than promoting a multi-layered approach of defences in depth which is what is really required. Even the World Health Organisation has recently criticised the ‘false sense of security’ given by over-selling of the benefits of the vaccines.
Although facemasks are to be reintroduced in retail and travel settings, these measures clearly won’t be enough to stop a more transmissible variant with strong vaccine escape capabilities becoming dominant in the UK within a month of arrival.
After two years of the UK aimlessly thrashing around for solutions to the pandemic, it seems that are plenty of lessons still to be learned.
Key measures announced by the UK today:
- All travellers to the UK will have to take a PCR test by the end of day 2 of their arrival; travellers must self-isolate until they receive a negative test result
- All contacts of suspected Omicron cases must self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status. They will be contacted by NHS Test and Trace
- Face coverings will become compulsory on public transport and in shops – not including hospitality
- The JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) will consider giving boosters to a wider age group, as well as reducing the gap between the second dose and booster.
The pharmaceutical company Merck said on Friday that in a final analysis of a clinical trial, its antiviral pill molnupiravir reduced the risk of hospitalization and death among high-risk Covid patients by 30 percent, down from an earlier estimate of 50 percent.
The lower efficacy is a disappointment for the drug, known as molnupiravir, which health officials around the world are counting on as a critical tool to save lives and reduce the burden on hospitals. It increases the importance of a similar, apparently more effective, offering from Pfizer that is also under review by the Food and Drug Administration.
UK Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said “Today is a historic day for our country, as the UK is now the first country in the world to approve an antiviral that can be taken at home for COVID-19. This will be a game changer for the most vulnerable and the immunosuppressed, who will soon be able to receive the ground-breaking treatment.”
“The FDA needs to tread very carefully with molnupiravir, the antiviral currently before them for approval. My misgivings are founded on two key concerns. The first is the drug’s potential mutagenicity, and the possibility that its use could lead to birth defects or cancerous tumors. The second is a danger that is far greater and potentially far deadlier: the drug’s potential to supercharge SARS-CoV-2 mutations and unleash a more virulent variant upon the world.”