How worried should we be about new Covid variants?

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Covid infections continue to rise across the UK, with the latest data from the Office for National Statistics showing 1.7mn people testing positive, a 23 per cent increase on the week before.

Many other countries are experiencing similar increases, driven mainly by the recent BA. 4 and BA. 5 subvariants of Omicron, and hospitalisations are beginning to climb around the world.

But what are the symptoms and how worried should we be? Who will be offered a booster and when? How severe is Long Covid? Will vaccines adapted to Omicron be ready in time for the autumn? Will regulators co-ordinate a worldwide switch to these new jabs?

Clive Cookson, the FT’s science editor, and Hannah Kuchler, our global pharmaceuticals correspondent, answered your questions about the virus.

Here are the highlights:

FT commenter leftfield: Is there any early evidence emerging as to the potential for newer Covid-19 strains to drive Long Covid symptoms?

Clive Cookson: If you mean the various Omicron variants or subvariants, it is too soon to say. But there is a broad correlation between the average severity of acute symptoms caused by a SARS-CoV-2 strain and the risk that it will cause Long Covid, though I am well aware that mild cases can lead to Long Covid too. On that basis, I’d say that Omicron has less — though still substantial — potential to drive Long Covid than the earlier variants.


FT commenter LGWbailey: Given that I had my booster last November, realistically how much protection will it offer me now — especially against Omicron BA4/BA5 variants?

Clive Cookson: You’ll still have excellent protection against symptoms severe enough to send you to hospital or kill you but relatively poor protection against mild or asymptomatic infection. Remember that vaccines have a cumulative effect in building up immunity. If you had two earlier shots, they will contribute to your protection too.


FT commenter Ibrahim @Xecced: The vaccine market was about 3 per cent of the pharmaceuticals market pre-pandemic. What’s the size now, and how do you envisage it evolving going forward?

Hannah Kuchler: In 2021, the vaccine market expanded to about 8 per cent of all pharmaceutical sales. But with sales of Covid-19 shots forecast to fall, that may be a peak for now. There is however a big increase in investment in the vaccine market because the pandemic proved the potential of the mRNA technology. So the largest players in vaccines such as Sanofi and GSK had to invest in mRNA to catch up with the frontrunners. There may also be increased interest in vaccines such as annual flu shots but it is not clear how long that lasts — or if people are tired of constant boosters, or more hesitant because of misinformation around vaccines during the pandemic.


FT commenter WSB: The vaccines are still using the early (2020 June circulating variant) spike proteins, why are we still distributing vaccines containing spike proteins for old variants at a time when the circulating variant is Omicron? Wouldn’t this be like giving flu jabs that used the flu strains from two years ago?

Clive Cookson: Vaccines based on spike proteins for the original Wuhan strain are still very effective at preventing serious disease though their effect on preventing transmission is much smaller, as you suggest. There is a phenomenon called “original antigenic sin” or “immune imprinting” which means that some people may respond best to the booster dose of the old vaccine.


FT commenter Sebastian: As someone suffering the disabling effects of Long Covid I wonder whether you expect to see a surge of reinfected people developing the condition as these subvariants take hold?

Hannah Kuchler: Yes, there is a risk of Long Covid with every infection. But a recent study found that the proportion of people infected with Omicron that developed Long Covid was lower than the percentage of those who were infected with Delta. One theory is that the Omicron variant doesn’t make its way as deep into the lungs and is also not as often connected with a loss of smell. But of course, with such a huge Omicron wave — and more waves fuelled by subvariants whose impact we do not yet completely understand — that could still mean a large number of new patients developing Long Covid.


FT commenter Surrey_hills: I’d like to know just how up for debate the impact of Long Covid is. Most studies I’ve seen rely on self-reported data which must be a huge drawback to those studies. Some out there say the population will ultimately all be struck down with Long Covid after repeated infections. Others discount that it’s much of an issue at all.

Hannah Kuchler: Ultimately, Long Covid may be divided into several different conditions. There is such a range of symptoms and differences in duration. There are good studies that are not simply self-reported surveys but they tend to be focused on a subset of the population, for example, the PHOSP study in the UK on patients who were hospitalised, and a study of the longer-term cardiac impact on US veterans.


For more questions and answers on the Omicron variant and rising cases, read the full Q&A in the comments section below.

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