Omicron may have peaked but the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, experts say. Here’s what lies ahead

The Omicron wave has subsided in many parts of Australia but, experts say, it’ll be another two years before life will go back to what it was before the pandemic.

Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt

Health Minister Greg Hunt said the Omicron wave has peaked in many parts of Australia. Source: AAP

The Omicron wave may have peaked in many parts of Australia, but experts warn it’s not time to celebrate yet as the pandemic is far from over.

The number of new COVID-19 infections are on a steady decline in some of the country’s most populous states, with rates of hospitalisation also showing signs of following a similar trajectory.

“We’re seeing clear signs that this Omicron wave – at least in NSW, Victoria and the ACT – has peaked. South Australia had also had some promising signs,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters in Melbourne on Monday morning.

Adrian Esterman, an epidemiologist and biostatistician with more than 40 years of experience, agrees.

“I look at the seven-day moving average and plot it against time. And this gives me the overall shape of the epidemic curve,” Professor Esterman told SBS News.

“And I look at the effective reproduction number which tells me whether growth of cases is accelerating or decelerating.”

When Professor Esterman puts all that together, he can confidently say the effective reproduction number dropped below one in New South Wales on 13 January and in Victoria on 15 January, signifying the start of the end of the Omicron wave.

In fact, Professor Esterman said Omicron has peaked in all parts of Australia, including the Northern Territory, except for Western Australia.

Adrian Esterman
Adrian Esterman, epidemiologist from the University of South Australia. Source: Supplied

But he warned this is not the end of the pandemic yet.

“We’ve still got a large part of the [world], which is not [vaccinated and] well protected,” he said.

According to data compiled by the New York Times, only 53 per cent of the world is currently double vaccinated and, Professor Esterman said, “that means there’s always a new chance of more variants arising”.

When does a variant become a ‘variant of concern’?

A number of COVID-19 variants are emerging all over the world but only a few are designated “a variant of concern” by the World Health Organization.

Omicron was given that title on 26 November.

There are three characteristics of a COVID-19 variant that determine how concerning it is, Tony Blakely – professor of epidemiology at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne – told SBS News.

“How infectious is it – high or low? How much vaccine escape does it have – high or low? And how virulent is it – does it have high rates of hospitalisation and death or low rates?” Professor Blakely said.

Melbourne University epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely
Melbourne University epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely. Source: Supplied

Delta was more infectious and more virulent than the variants of COVID-19 circulating in the community in 2020, he said.

While Omicron was more infectious than Delta but not as virulent, he said.

Therefore, in some ways, Professor Blakely added, we got lucky with Omicron.

“Omicron has caused a lot of social and health chaos and disruption. But it’s probably not a bad way the trajectory or the arc of history has gone.

“I think we’re pretty lucky to have got a really infectious [variant] that was going to come along at some point anyway [but without being too virulent],” he said.

What could the next variant of concern be like?

According to Professor Esterman, if there’s another variant of concern after Omicron, it’ll most definitely be more transmissible than Omicron.

“We’re seeing lots of variants but none that are really dangerous. So Omicron was an exception and there’ll almost certainly be another one coming after Omicron,” he said.

“Now, if it is to take over from Omicron it basically has to be more transmissible than Omicron,” he said.

But whether it’s more virulent or less virulent than the current variant is down to chance, Professor Blakely said.

“The chance of the next variant being more or less virulent than what we have now is really 50/50. You can’t say that it’s more likely that the next variant will be even less virulent. That is just the luck of the draw,” he said.

If the next variant or variants of concern are less virulent than Omicron, the experts agreed, the pandemic will progressively fizz out.

However, if the next variant or variants of concern are more virulent than Omicron then, Professor Blakely said, there could be some bad times ahead.

“If we’re unlucky and if we get a new variant that’s quite virulent and is quite infectious and has got vaccine escape then that could be really bad,” he said.

The key, therefore, according to Professor Esterman, is to be well prepared.

“That means giving as many people the booster shot as possible. That means potentially giving a fourth dose to older people or to those with impaired immune systems.

“And it means being ready to re-impose public health measures as soon as the first step of a new variant comes along,” he said.

Future vaccines will help, too

In the end, however, it’ll be the vaccines that’ll really end the pandemic, Professor Blakely said.

“At some point between six and 12 months, I think it’s reasonable to assume that we’ll have a new generation of vaccines and those vaccines will be focused more on the core virus, not the spike protein,” he said.

“And those vaccines should provide better immunity. They’ll have a better, broader, deeper immunological cover against whatever the future variants are. And that will really get us out of this pandemic,” he said.

Will life ever be normal again?

Yes, said Professor Esterman, but it’ll take some time.

“I think we’ve probably got another year of these waves of variants coming through, but we’re going to get much better vaccines coming through and in 12 months time we’ll probably get much more of the world vaccinated,” he said.

“So I’m hopeful that in, perhaps, two years time, life will be pretty much back to normal,” he said.

Wearing a mask
Wearing a mask may remain a common practice in Australia, even after the pandemic is over. Source: Getty

Some things, however, will never go back to how they were pre-pandemic, he said.

“There are things that have changed forever. More people will work from home in future. People will be more aware of things like hand hygiene.

“And things like wearing a face mark will become quite common. It was already common before COVID in Asia. But I think that’s going to be a common practice now in the western countries,” he said.

6 min read
Published 25 January 2022 at 6:17am
By Akash Arora
Source: SBS News