Omicron-associated changes in severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) symptoms in the United Kingdom

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BACKGROUND: The SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant has been replaced by the highly transmissible Omicron BA.1 variant, and subsequently by Omicron BA.2. It is important to understand how these changes in dominant variants affect reported symptoms, while also accounting for symptoms arising from other co-circulating respiratory viruses. METHODS: In a nationally representative UK community study, the COVID-19 Infection Survey, we investigated symptoms in PCR-positive infection episodes vs. PCR-negative study visits over calendar time, by age and vaccination status, comparing periods when the Delta, Omicron BA.1 and BA.2 variants were dominant. RESULTS: Between October-2020 and April-2022, 120,995 SARS-CoV-2 PCR-positive episodes occurred in 115,886 participants, with 70,683 (58%) reporting symptoms. The comparator comprised 4,766,366 PCR-negative study visits (483,894 participants); 203,422 (4%) reporting symptoms. Symptom reporting in PCR-positives varied over time, with a marked reduction in loss of taste/smell as Omicron BA.1 dominated, maintained with BA.2 (44%/45% 17 October 2021, 16%/13% 2 January 2022, 15%/12% 27 March 2022). Cough, fever, shortness of breath, myalgia, fatigue/weakness and headache also decreased after Omicron BA.1 dominated, but sore throat increased, the latter to a greater degree than concurrent increases in PCR-negatives. Fatigue/weakness increased again after BA.2 dominated, although to a similar degree to concurrent increases in PCR-negatives. Symptoms were consistently more common in adults aged 18-65 years than in children or older adults. CONCLUSIONS: Increases in sore throat (also common in the general community), and a marked reduction in loss of taste/smell, make Omicron harder to detect with symptom-based testing algorithms, with implications for institutional and national testing policies.

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Volume 76
Issue number 3
Pages e133-e141
Available online
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