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Basic Facts

COVID-19: What is the Omicron variant?

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The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the new Omicron (or B.1.1.529) variant of the coronavirus, reported on November 24 2021 in South Africa, to be “of concern,” stating that the likelihood of further global spread of this variant is “very high” due to its many mutations.  

Despite uncertainties about its transmissibility, preliminary data suggest an “increased risk of reinfection” with this variant.

The Organization warns [30th November 2021]: 

Cases of the new coronavirus are expected in vaccinated people, although in a small and predictable proportion.

The emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant underscores how dangerous and precarious our situation is,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recalling that a “new wave of cases and deaths is sweeping across Europe” where the Delta variant is overwhelmingly prevalent.

What is the difference with the other variants? 

Its genetic profile. While the highly transmissible Delta variant has 9 mutations on the spike protein, which plays an essential role in infection, the Omicron variant has 32 mutations on this protein and about 50 in all.

It is therefore potentially more transmissible and more dangerous due to the new combination of mutations.

Will the tests and vaccines still be effective? 

Probably, but “we don’t yet know whether Omicron is associated with greater transmission, more severe disease, increased risk of infections, or increased risk of vaccine evasion,” according to Dr. Tedros of the World Health Organisation.

WHO reiterates that vaccination remains essential to reduce severe disease and death, including from the dominant Delta variant, and urges accelerated vaccination of high-priority groups.

PCR tests continue to detect infection, including by Omicron.

What is the status of the research?

Scientists at WHO and other organisations around the world are working urgently to understand the threat posed by this new variant, which is now present throughout Europe, and to adapt tests, vaccines, and treatments if necessary.

More information about the Omicron variant will be released in the coming weeks as more information is known.

What are the WHO recommendations? 

WHO recommends that countries adopt a scientific approach based on risk assessment and intensify surveillance and case sequencing to gain a better understanding of circulating variants.

The organisation also encourages them to share their genomic sequence data and research on the variant, as well as to report early cases.

It is critical that countries that are transparent with their data are supported, as this is the only way to ensure that we receive important data in a timely manner,” said WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr. Matshidiso Moeti.

States should continue to implement public health measures to reduce the overall circulation of COVID-19.

It is imperative that everyone continues to respect sanitary measures, i.e. physical distancing, wearing a mask, ventilating indoor spaces, washing hands, coughing or sneezing into one’s elbow, or avoiding closed and crowded places.

Should countries close their borders? 

As a growing number of countries are imposing flight bans on southern African countries due to concerns about the new Omicron variant, WHO is advising states against imposing travel restrictions related to the new variant that could be considered “an attack on global solidarity.”

Covid-19 is continuously taking advantage of our differences. We will only get the upper hand on the virus if we work together on solutions, warned Dr Matshidiso Moeti

WHO also emphasises the importance of addressing inequities in access to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments around the world.

For the WHO chief, the world cannot put an end to this pandemic if it cannot solve the vaccine crisis.

More than 80% of the world’s vaccines went to the G20 countries. Developing countries, most of which are in Africa, received only 0.6% of all vaccines.


What is the 2019 novel coronavirus?

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Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Most people infected with the virus will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without requiring special treatment.

However, some will become seriously ill and require medical attention. Older people and those with underlying medical conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, or cancer are more likely to develop serious illness.

Anyone can get sick with COVID-19 and become seriously ill or die at any age. 


The best way to prevent and slow down transmission is to be well informed about the disease and how the virus spreads. Protect yourself and others from infection by staying at least 1 metre apart from others, wearing a properly fitted mask, and washing your hands or using an alcohol-based rub frequently. Get vaccinated when it’s your turn and follow local guidance.


The virus can spread from an infected person’s mouth or nose in small liquid particles when they cough, sneeze, speak, sing or breathe. These particles range from larger respiratory droplets to smaller aerosols. It is important to practice respiratory etiquette, for example by coughing into a flexed elbow, and to stay home and self-isolate until you recover if you feel unwell.


What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

COVID-19 affects different people in different ways. Most infected people will develop mild to moderate illness and recover without hospitalisation.

Most common symptoms:

  • fever
  • cough
  • tiredness
  • loss of taste or smell.

Less common symptoms:

  • sore throat
  • headache
  • aches and pains
  • diarrhoea
  • a rash on skin, or discolouration of fingers or toes
  • red or irritated eyes.

Serious symptoms:

  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • loss of speech or mobility, or confusion
  • chest pain.

Seek immediate medical attention if you have serious symptoms.  Always call ahead before visiting your doctor or health facility.

People with mild symptoms who are otherwise healthy should manage their symptoms at home. 

On average it takes 5–6 days from when someone is infected with the virus for symptoms to show, however it can take up to 14 days.

What do I do if I feel sick?

In the event that you have symptoms of respiratory illness, such as fever, cough or difficulty breathing AND a history of travel from an area where there is an ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 or contact with a person with coronavirus, please take the following steps to prevent spread of the disease: 

  • Seek medical attention immediately as directed by the Department of Health
  • Phone your GP, or emergency department – if this is not possible, phone 112 or 999
  • In a any medical emergency (if you have severe symptoms) phone 112 or 999
  • Call ahead whenever possible before going to a doctors surgery or hospital.
  • Separate the individual from others while arrangements are being made for transport to appropriate medical care.
  • Contact your HSE confidential freephone helpline on 1850 24 1850
  • Phone your GP, or emergency department – if this is not possible, phone 112 or 999

How does it spread?

The virus that causes COVID-19 is spreading from person to person. Someone who is actively sick with COVID-19 can spread the illness to others. The principal mode of transmission is still thought to occur mainly via respiratory droplets that travel up to six feet in the air after an infected person coughs or sneezes. This transmission is similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.


Close contact with an infectious person, such as shaking hands, or touching a doorknob, tabletop or other surfaces touched by an infectious person, and then touching your nose, eyes, or mouth can also transmit the virus. I It is not yet known how long the new coronavirus can survive on surfaces, but based on data from other coronaviruses, such as SARS, it may be for up to two days at room temperatures.

Risk | Testing | Treatment

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What does “Close Contact” mean?

This is only a guide but close contact can mean:

  • spending more than 15 minutes face-to-face contact within 2 metres of an infected person
  • living in the same house or shared accommodation as an infected person

If you have been in close contact with a confirmed case in the last 14 days and you do not have symptoms, you need to restrict your movements. You only need to phone your GP if you have symptoms of coronavirus. Do not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital. 


When you may need to be tested for coronavirus

If you develop symptoms you will need to self-isolate and phone your GP. The people in your household need to restrict their movements.

  • Do not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital.
  • The GP will assess you over the phone.
  • If they think you need to be tested for coronavirus, they will arrange a test. 
  • HSELive is an information line only and can’t order coronavirus tests.

How Coronavirus is Spread

Coronavirus is spread in sneeze or cough droplets.

You could get the virus if you:

  • come into close contact with someone who has the virus and is coughing or sneezing
  • touch surfaces that someone who has the virus has coughed or sneezed on

The virus may only survive a few hours if someone who has it coughs or sneezes on a surface. Simple household disinfectants can kill the virus on surfaces. Clean the surface first and then use a disinfectant.

Follow this advice to protect yourself and others from coronavirus.

Packages from affected countries

You cannot get coronavirus from packages or food that has come from China or elsewhere. There is no evidence that animals or animal products legally imported into the EU are a health risk due to coronavirus.

Face masks

Using masks is unlikely to be of any benefit if you are not sick. Sick people will be advised by their doctor when to use a mask.  

Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others.

Children and coronavirus

Parents are understandably concerned. But it’s important to keep in mind that comparatively few children have tested positive for the virus, and adverse events in children are very rare. 

Encourage your child to wash their hands regularly and properly and make it fun by getting young children to sing a song while they wash their hands. Read more advice on how to prevent your child from catching or spreading viral infections.

Treatment for coronavirus

There is no specific treatment for coronavirus. But many of the symptoms of the virus can be treated. 

Drink plenty of water. Paracetamol or ibuprofen may help with symptoms such as pain or fever. Paracetamol is usually recommended as the first-line treatment for most people. Before taking any medication you should read the full package leaflet that comes with your medicine. You should also follow any advice a healthcare professional gives you.

If you get the virus, your healthcare professional will advise treatment based on your symptoms.

Antibiotics do not work against coronavirus or any viruses. They only work against bacterial infections.

Supportive treatments, like oxygen therapy, can be given while your own body fights the virus. Life support can be used in extreme cases.



At-Risk groups and coronavirus

There are some groups of people who may be more at risk of serious illness if they catch coronavirus. But we do not think these groups have a higher risk of catching coronavirus. This is similar to other infections such as flu.

You are more at risk of serious illness if you catch coronavirus and you:

  • are 60 years of age and over – people over 75 are particularly vulnerable
  • have a long-term medical condition – for example, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, cancer or high blood pressure
  • have a weak immune system (immunosuppressed)


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What should I do to protect myself against the virus?

This is a rapidly evolving and dynamic situation worldwide. Every individual is encouraged to stay informed about the changing travel advisories and restrictions, guidelines about returning to work/school after traveling abroad, as well as simple ways to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases described below. Most importantly, do not come to work, college or school if you are sick.

Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent COVID-19 infection. The best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to this virus. However, as a reminder, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses. 

To prevent infection and to slow transmission of COVID-19, do the following: 

  • Get vaccinated as soon as a vaccine is available to you.
  • Stay at least 1 metre apart from others, even if they don’t appear to be sick.
  • Wear a properly fitted mask when physical distancing is not possible or when in poorly ventilated settings.
  • Choose open, well-ventilated spaces over closed ones. Open a window if indoors.
  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water or clean them with alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.
  • If you feel unwell, stay home and self-isolate until you recover


  • Wash your hands: 
  • after coughing or sneezing
  • after toilet use
  • before eating
  • before and after preparing food
  • if you are in contact with a sick person, especially those with respiratory symptoms
  • if your hands are dirty if you have handled animals or animal waste

For information about handwashing, see CDC’s Handwashing website



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Please see the Department of Health guidance.  if you have been to a country where there is a spread of the virus.  

Travel Advice

The Department’s travel advice for over 200 countries is regularly updated. You can keep up-to-date by:

If you are abroad, please remain vigilant and follow the instructions and advice from the local authorities.

If you register your contact details with us we can contact you and provide assistance if there is an unforeseen crisis or family emergency while you are overseas. You can register your details on our Citizens’ Registration site.

Where to find advice if you have recently entered Ireland

If you have recently entered Ireland from anywhere other than Northern Ireland, you should follow the Health Service Executive’s advice.

Links to airline websites

Disruption of flights should be expected in view of the ongoing reduction in many international flight services due to COVID-19. If you are concerned that flights you have booked might be cancelled, please contact your airline.

Links to the Aer Lingus and Ryanair websites are provided below.


Contact Details for Irish Embassies Abroad

To find the Irish Embassy or Consulate which you require, follow this link to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Department of Foreign Affairs – Irish Embassies Abroad

If a country or territory is not listed and you require Consular Assistance, please contact the Consular Section.


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