Rather than being part of the original Covid-19 sequence with Alpha and Delta, Omicron has spun off into its own entity.
It’s sending out a seemingly endless series of viral cuts for release. It’s evolving into its own Greek-letter genre.
After the first Omicron variant (BA.1), Kiwis became familiar with the BA.2, BA.4, and BA.5 subvariants.
Now there are also others worldwide such as BA.4.6, XBB, XAZ, BQ.1, BQ.1.1, BA.2.75, and BF.7 to add to the list.
They are among at least 300 Omicron subvariants being tracked by the World Health Organisation.
BA.5 is still the dominant strain in New Zealand, although BA.4.6 and BA.2.75 have a significant foothold.
Overseas experts say the new subvariants continue the Omicron trend of being more transmissible and better able to evade immunity to cause infections. WHO senior official Maria Van Kerkhove said: “We don’t see a change in severity yet.”
Update on #Omicron, including what we know about XBB & BQ.1.1 ⬇️— Maria Van Kerkhove (@mvankerkhove) October 19, 2022
Bottom line: >300 sublineages of Omicron are circulating globally right now and most (~76%) are BA.5 sublineages.
We @WHO with our TAG-VE need to assess all variants & currently this is very difficult. 🧵 1/4 pic.twitter.com/t1y9H5Z8sC
How people keep themselves safe – here or overseas – also hasn’t changed, starting with being up to date with their vaccinations.
Being indoors with other people in an unventilated building without a good-quality mask for a lengthy time is still the most likely way to get infected.
Plenty of people have found this year it is possible to travel internationally without catching Covid, if they’re still careful about masking up in higher-risk situations: inside planes, trains, buses, and indoor public places like museums.
In New Zealand, we have two advantages at present: the rate of circulating virus is still low, though slowly rising; and the weather is warming, which means people will spend more time outdoors.
On the other hand, most of the population have had only two vaccine shots. And neither of the two booster shots that have been available here is targeted specifically at Omicron.
The population’s immunity is patchy: aside from different doses at different times, some people have infection immunity, while others have dodged the virus so far.
Local experts are cautious about predicting how significant the new subvariants will be here, with various factors to consider.
One thing is clear: this third wave of Covid is landing in a highly deregulated environment compared with previous ones.
In September, the Government ended most masking requirements, and border rules on vaccination and testing.
This week, it announced the winding down of special powers related to Covid on lockdowns, vaccine mandates, gathering limits, and MIQ. Scrapped is the need to fill out the New Zealand Traveller Declaration before flying here – with the summer holidays around the corner.
With China stubbornly sticking to its zero-Covid policy and being regularly criticised for it internationally; it makes political sense for Labour, facing re-election next year, to put memories of tough, controversial, measures to bed now. People are sick of the pandemic and have cost-of-living concerns.
A balance does indeed need to be struck between caution over Covid, and people’s mental health, hopes of getting on with their lives, and economic issues.
The Government has kept requirements for infected people to isolate and mask rules in health and aged care facilities.
But an ongoing border detection system with antigen tests would surely have been worthwhile. Testing of arrivals, while we had it, was an early warning system for the country.
Very little has been achieved on better ventilation of public buildings or future managed isolation options. There’s as yet no timeline for New Zealanders getting the Omicron-targeting booster. How can the public feel sure Kiwis will have quick access to new vaccines if there’s suddenly a new, different variant?
There’s little sense the country is keeping its eye on the ball for a future major outbreak – or is in any hurry to consider what worked and what didn’t over the past nearly three years.
Acting Minister for Covid-19 Response Chris Hipkins referred vaguely to Cabinet discussions about a future inquiry to “capture the lessons” of the pandemic.
In Australia, an independent review of the country’s Covid response has already been released.
Meanwhile, research continues to emerge from overseas that a Covid infection is something to be avoided. One US study this week found it can age key organs of the body in severe cases.
The impression is the authorities here will simply ramp up if a crisis arrives rather than watch for variants, urgently study the pandemic response, and prepare and plan.