What is the Omicron variant?

An image of Lucy Hoppe
Head of Clinical Evidence at Bupa
11 January 2022
Next review due January 2025

During the pandemic, you’ve probably heard of different COVID variants. These variants are new types of the virus that cause COVID-19, and they’re named after Greek letters. Over the past few weeks, the Omicron variant has hit the headlines. Here I’ll answer some common questions about Omicron.

The Omicron variant is a new type of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. This is the virus that causes COVID-19. At the moment, most of the COVID-19 cases in the UK are the Omicron variant.

What are the differences between the Omicron variant and other variants?

We know there are some differences between the Omicron variant and other variants such as Delta and Alpha. We are still waiting for more information about exactly how different this variant is. But at the moment it seems to:

  • cause some different symptoms
  • cause fewer hospital admissions
  • be easier to pass on to other people

What are the symptoms of the Omicron variant?

Current data shows that only around half of people with Omicron experience the most well-known COVID-19 symptoms. These include a fever, a cough and a loss of smell or taste. This means that many people do not have any of these symptoms.

We still need more information about what other symptoms Omicron might cause. But so far it seems that some people have:

  • a runny nose
  • headaches
  • mild or severe fatigue (feeling very tired)
  • sneezing
  • a sore throat

Some people won’t have any symptoms at all.

Is the Omicron variant less severe?

You might have heard that the Omicron variant is a less serious form of COVID-19. This is because the evidence so far shows you’re less likely to be admitted to hospital if you have this variant, compared to other variants.

But you can still become very unwell with Omicron, and there are increasing numbers of people in hospital with it. It’s also not yet known if you’ll develop long-COVID after getting the Omicron variant. So, it’s important to keep yourself and other people as safe as you can.

Is the Omicron variant more easily passed on?

Yes. It seems that the Omicron variant is more transmissible compared to the Delta variant. This means that it’s more easily passed from person-to-person. It’s also more likely to reinfect people who have had COVID-19 before, compared to other variants.

The good news is there are a number of things we can all do that help to reduce the spread of Omicron. Wear a face covering if you’re using public transport, or if you’re in an indoor public place such as a shop or cinema. Remember that meeting people outdoors is the safest option. But if you do meet indoors, let in plenty of fresh air.

Do PCR tests detect the Omicron variant?

Yes. PCR tests can detect the Omicron variant just as well as the other variants. If you’re experiencing symptoms, it’s important that you self-isolate straight away and get a PCR test. The test can either be sent to your home or you can book a test appointment.

Do lateral flow tests detect the Omicron variant?

Yes. Lateral flow tests can detect the Omicron variant just as well as the other variants. Use lateral flow tests to check whether you’re infected before you:

  • mix with people in crowded indoor places such as restaurants or theatres
  • visit people at higher risk of becoming very unwell from COVID-19 such as older people or people with a long-term health condition

If you get a positive lateral flow result, report it and self-isolate immediately.

If you develop symptoms of COVID-19 but your lateral flow test is negative, you should still self-isolate straight away and get a PCR test.

Do COVID-19 vaccines protect you from the Omicron variant?

Yes. Data shows that vaccines are protective against the Omicron variant and are helping to stop people from becoming seriously ill. But you can still catch Omicron if you’ve had the vaccine. You’re also much more likely to become unwell if you haven’t had both of your vaccine doses and your booster yet.

If you haven’t yet had your vaccine or your booster it’s not too late. You can book an appointment at a vaccination centre or pharmacy. You can also go to a walk-in vaccination site without an appointment.

We are now offering COVID-19 at home PCR tests, which can tell you if you currently have coronavirus (COVID-19). We also offer business COVID-19 support services.

An image of Lucy Hoppe
Lucy Hoppe (she/her)
Head of Clinical Evidence at Bupa

    • Tracking SARS-CoV-2 variants. World Health Organization., updated 4 January 2022
    • Omicron daily overview. UK Health Security Agency., published 31 December 2021
    • SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern and variants under investigation in England. Technical briefing 33. UK Health Security Agency., published 23 December 2021
    • Enhancing Readiness for Omicron (B.1.1.529): Technical Brief and Priority Actions for Member States. World Health Organization., updated 23 December 2021
    • What are the symptoms of Omicron? ZOE., updated 7th January 2022
    • Coronavirus (COVID‑19). UK Government., accessed 7 January 2022
    • Order coronavirus (COVID-19) rapid lateral flow tests. UK Government., accessed 7 January 2022
    • Confirmatory PCR tests to be temporarily suspended for positive lateral flow test results. UK Health Security Agency., published 5 January 2022
    • COVID-19 vaccination: a guide to booster vaccination for individuals aged 18 years and over and those aged 16 years and over who are at risk. UK Health Security Agency., updated 11 December 2021

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