The new and highly transmissible Omicron variant of the deadly coronavirus has increased immune escape compared with the Delta variant and appears likely to become the dominant SARS-CoV-2 strain globally in 2022, according to Singapore-based experts.
The World Health Organisation has called for the world to pull together to end the COVID-19 pandemic next year.
"2022 must be the year we end the pandemic," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva on Monday.
But Singapore-based experts said much depends on how potent the Omicron variant is and asserted that it was 'futile' to try and predict when the pandemic will end.
"It appears likely that Omicron will become the dominant SARS-CoV-2 strain globally in 2022," public health expert associate professor Natasha Howard said, adding that the Omicron variant is more transmissible and has 'increased immune escape' compared with the Delta strain.
The rise of the more transmissible variant, increased case numbers and hospitalisations are likely, said Howard, the interdisciplinary health policy and systems researcher from the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health in Singapore.
"The implications of this are still unclear, but it shows that the pandemic is not controlled yet and until initial and booster COVID-19 vaccine doses are accessible to everyone eligible globally, we can expect new variants to emerge," she warned.
For the Singapore population, it is clear that two COVID-19 vaccine doses are not enough to provide reasonable protection against Omicron and people should get booster shots as soon as they are eligible, she said.
Citing Imperial College modelling data, she said that the risk of reinfection with the Omicron variant is more than five times higher and it does not appear milder than the Delta variant.
Omicron will likely be the cause of a 'significant wave' of COVID-19, said associate professor Ashley St John from the Duke-NUS Medical School's Emerging Infectious Diseases Programme.
"But while the Omicron variant is more transmissible than most we have seen, it is still SARS-CoV-2," she said.
"The genetic backbone of Omicron is very, very different. However, we don't yet have consistent data whether those genetic differences result in increased severity," the professor explained.
Public health experts are thus monitoring the data on severity for Omicron and are waiting for more concrete numbers to bolster the initial assessment that vaccines are efficacious against it, she said.
Dr Lim Wee Kiat, associate director at the Singapore Management University's centre for management practice, said it was 'futile' to try and predict when the pandemic will end.
After all, the 1918 flu pandemic never really ended, according to the US Centre of Disease Control and Prevention, descendants of the influenza virus from more than a century ago still circulate today, Lim Wee said.
"The path to normalcy is going to be punctuated by twists and dead ends, even reversals, as we have seen here in Singapore and elsewhere," the Channel quoted Dr Lim, a disaster sociologist by training, as saying.
And while Omicron may further delay the roll-out of the Singapore government's COVID-19 endemic roadmap, the city state's experience in managing the pandemic over the past two years is a plus.
"Our experience in managing the pandemic over the past two years means that we are unlikely to revert to a 'circuit-breaker' type situation, which will only serve as a last resort given Singapore's endemic goal, especially since most of the population has been vaccinated," said Nydia Ngiow, Singapore managing director of strategic advisory firm Bowyer Group Asia.
Meanwhile, Singapore reported 322 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, of which 89 are imported or those who arrived here. There are also two fatalities, taking the country's death toll from coronavirus complications to 820 deaths.
As of Thursday, Singapore has recorded 277,042 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.