As a cluster of cases from the Omicron variant emerges in New South Wales, experts are now weighing in on the threats posed by the latest pathogen. So far, the new variant has been detected in at least 40 countries, with preliminary data showing it spreads twice as fast as the Delta variant.
In an economy still reeling from the 2021 lockdowns, just how worrisome is this "recombination" of the SARS-CoV-2 virus?
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, for his part, has promised to avoid imposing yet another hard lockdown while businesses and communities recover. But virologists and other public health experts in Australia and South Africa (where the Omicron variant is believed to have originated) are treading cautiously.
Here's what we know so far:
Omicron possibly more infectious than Delta
"Omicron includes a spike protein mutation that makes it more infectious, but also includes a mutation on the spike protein that may allow it to reduce vaccine effectiveness," virologist Sarah Palmer of the Sydney-based Westmead Institute's Centre for Virus Research told ABC News.
Staying in enclosed spaces like offices, schools and gyms could increase a person's chances of contracting COVID-19 since the Omicron variant can purportedly spread to three to six times more people than Delta could.
Palmer and her colleagues at the Centre also found how the virus doesn't just mutate but also recombines previous variants, like the Alpha and Delta variants in the case of Omicron.
"If somebody is infected with two variants, [then] there could be a recombination that could lead to a more pathogenic and infectious virus," Palmer said.
Mutations and recombinations signal that "there's no getting rid of" of COVID, said Professor Nancy Baxter of the University of Melbourne, as quoted in The Guardian.
The virus can, however, become endemic and part of everyday life just as communities start to build up their immunity. But this will depend on the success of vaccination drives as well.
Milder symptoms, fewer hospitalisations?
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, said symptoms of infection arising from the Omicron variant appear to be "extremely mild". Fatigue and bodyache are among the most common signs, with none of the usual respiratory ailments associated with previous variants, as reported by People Matters.
One trend that Australians will have to look into, now that there is community transmission of Omicron, is the surge in the number of hospitalised patients. The first three waves of infections in 2020 and 2021 saw a spike in the number of hospitalisations – a trend that seems to be missing from the rise in Omicron cases.
"If, in the second and third waves, we'd seen these levels of positivity to tests conducted, we would have seen very significant increases in hospital admissions, and we're not seeing that," said Dr. Richard Friedland, CEO of Netcare, South Africa's largest private healthcare provider.
"We are seeing breakthrough infections of people who have been vaccinated," he told Bloomberg, "but the infections we're seeing are very mild to moderate."