As you’re probably aware by now, COVID-19 cases are well and truly on the way up around the country, leading health authorities to confirm a new wave of COVID-19 is either here or it’s very much on the way.
Health experts and epidemiologists agree the wave is being driven by the spread of the BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants of Omicron.
But what are these variants and should we be worried?
Not exactly. Infectious diseases expert at the ANU Professor Peter Collignon isn’t overly worried … yet.
How did BA.4 and BA.5 come to be?
As you probably know by now, COVID-19 has changed and mutated repeatedly since it first emerged in Wuhan.
The major strains include Alpha, followed by Delta and then Omicron, which arrived late last year and peaked in January in Canberra.
BA.4 and BA.5 were first detected in January in South Africa, but they are now on track to become dominant around the world.
It’s understood these latest two strains have developed from Omicron.
That, says Professor Collignon, is both good and bad news.
“They are more transmissible than previous strains, like Omicron, but overall it seems to have a lower mortality rate and a serious disease rate than the Alpha strain,” he says.
Are our current vaccines going to protect us?
To a certain extent, yes.
Professor Collignon notes the other problem when a virus mutates this much is that vaccines become less effective, particularly at protecting against mild illnesses.
He does, however, say the vaccines still give you good protection against serious illness and death.
A previous COVID-19 infection also strengthens this immunity and further reduces a person’s risk of death and serious disease.
But there’s a big caveat to put on all of this.
Yes, the strain is less deadly. Yes, people have immunity and vaccine protection.
But, if people are now catching COVID-19 in higher numbers, more people will die than in previous waves where lockdowns and other public health measures stopped such high caseloads, as you can see from the fact that 50 per cent of all of Australia’s deaths in the pandemic have happened in the first six months of this year.
Professor Collignon also explains that while the risk profile of COVID-19 and the flu are now similar, the former is hanging around for longer than a normal winter flu season.
So how many cases can we expect this winter?
Basically, Professor Collignon says it’s difficult to predict, and he’s not sure daily caseloads are as important as they used to be.
“The number to look at is hospitalisations and deaths,” he explains.
“The latter is the most important because I think that for every case we find, there are two or three we have missed.”
But, he again notes a caveat is necessary as deaths lag two to three weeks behind cases.
As for a better way to uncover COVID, Professor Collignon recommends sewage testing and actually reporting what’s found.
Is a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine necessary?
Despite what politicians might be saying, Professor Collignon is not yet convinced this is needed right now for the general population.
Those who are immunocompromised or elderly do need a fourth shot, however.
Is getting COVID-19 worse the second time?
Actually, current evidence suggests the second time around is – in most cases at least – milder than the first.
But again, it’s important to note there isn’t much evidence yet about reinfection.
Professor Collignon says we need more data.
Will state and territory governments need to introduce restrictions like face mask mandates?
Not according to Professor Collignon. The most recent data from the US showed there wasn’t much difference between states that introduced mandates and those that didn’t.
He puts this down to people generally not following the mandate or wearing the mask correctly.
But he does advise mask-wearing when indoors in crowded, indoor situations such as public transport.
“A different question is, should we fine everyone in that carriage who is not wearing them? In that case, probably not, as we don’t have any evidence to show it works on a population basis,” Professor Collignon explains.
But, as Minister for Health Rachel Stephen-Smith said earlier this week, as she repeated a line much loved by the Territory’s health authorities – she won’t rule anything in or out.