The birth of the Omicron Covid variant that has led to new restrictions in the UK has been captured by international scientists.

A continually evolving map showing a branch of the vast coronavirus ‘family tree’ includes the mutation as it builds into a cluster.

Omicron, which has caused alarm due to its high number of genetic mutations, is shown in red on the constantly updated timeline.

As of Tuesday, there were 13 cases identified in England, including in London, the East Midlands and the North West.

The variant, which was first identified in South Africa, has caused alarm because it is feared to be more likely to evade antibodies and to have a higher rate of re-infection. Also known as B.1.1.529, it has been classed as a ‘variant of concern’ by the World Health Organisation.

Omicron has a large number of mutations, including in the spike protein which hijacks human cells, suggesting it may be more transmissible than other types of coronavirus.

The charts produced by Nextstrain, a collaborative analysis project anchored by European scientists, show how the variant is emerging from a huge branch of mutations. Omicron is shown in red in the middle of the chart, while Delta, the current dominant variant in the UK, is coded orange.

Researcher Dr Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Berne in Switzerland, told ‘I think there’s more we don’t know than that we know about the new variant, so we need to be careful in how confidently we make assessments right now.

‘Having said that, there are very legitimate concerns about the number of mutations this variant has and the potential for it to be more transmissible and evade immunity.

‘However, we don’t know exactly what the mutations’ impact on either of those is right now.

‘So it’s best to take steps to slow down spread, to buy time for science to try and get a better picture here. It’s important to note that it’s unlikely the vaccine will become completely ineffective, so being vaccinated is still one of the best things you can do to protect yourself.

‘It’s more a question of whether it reduces the efficacy a small amount, which may not be of much concern, or a larger amount, which may be.

‘It’s also critical to remember that we have other measures that can be used to combat the virus, no matter the variant: masks, social distancing, ventilation- so we are not powerless, and we can each make choices and decisions that help to reduce transmission.’

As it turns into a cluster at the most recent point in its specific branch, the omicron line includes sequences from Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and South Africa.

The colour-coded snapshot of organisms – described as a ‘clade’ by Nextstrain – includes the sequences provided by laboratories from around the world that are tracking Covid.

In one of the contributions from the Lancet Laboratory in South Africa, the variant is found to have had 92 nucleotide mutations from ‘root’, or when the variant was first identified emerging on the timeline.

The data also shows the proportion of the different Covid types in pie charts for each country. Dr Hodcroft said the graphs were ‘focal builds’ that highlight Omicron rather than showing the myriad numbers of variants at play at any one time.

Nextstrain has been tracking coronavirus around the world since the pandemic began to take hold at the end of 2019.

The open-source analysis website, run by researchers at universities across Europe, is continually updating the groups of organisms based on sequences from the labs. They also include the Wellcome Sanger Institute for the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium.

Even when a variant emerges, changes that take place within an infected human mean a new chain of sub-types develop further along the line.

Of particular concern to scientists are changes in the spike protein that the virus uses to effectively hijack human cells. Potentially, this could mean vaccines becoming less effective against infection.

The maps also reinforce Dr Hodcroft’s view, previously expressed to, that holding back new variants needs to be an international undertaking beyond borders.

A number of new measures to guard against Omicron came into effect on Tuesday. Face coverings are now compulsory in shops and on public transport and international arrivals must take a day two PCR test and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.

South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Angola have all been placed on the red list.

Booster jabs will be offered to all eligible adults in England by the end of January 2022 in the government’s ramped-up response.

Boris Johnson said: ‘Based on everything we know, our vaccines and boosters remain our best line of defence, so it is more important than ever that people come forward when eligible to get boosted.’

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