/Current COVID-19 wave could protect against new, ‘meaner’ variant, says Melbourne epidemiologist – ABC News

Current COVID-19 wave could protect against new, ‘meaner’ variant, says Melbourne epidemiologist – ABC News

The Omicron sub-variant BA.2 is sending COVID-19 case numbers skywards across the country, with a peak expected next month.

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But the spate of current infections might prove beneficial should a worse, more dangerous variant appear, according to epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne’s school of population and global health, Professor Tony Blakely.

“It sounds a little bit callous and brutal … but this [variant] will infect as many people as it needs to infect before [it] peters out,” he told the ABC News Daily podcast.

“That’s just the reality. We need to accept that.”

The new sub-variant is roughly 25 per cent more infectious than Omicron, but no more deadly.

According to Professor Blakely, so long as the infections remain primarily among young, healthy people, and not the immunocompromised or elderly, the benefit of widespread infection is that it is likely to provide a level of future immunity.

“[With] the assumption that Omicron BA.2 doesn’t have much of a legacy or seriousness of long-COVID … those [who] are fit and healthy shouldn’t be too worried about getting infected, and that infection will boost vaccine immunity to make us more resilient for whatever comes along,” he said.

As COVID cases rise again, what comes next?

Epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely on how worried we should be, and the need to prepare for a more dangerous variant that could be on the way.  

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“Somebody who is naturally infected and triple vaccinated is going to be much safer, should a bad variant come along, than somebody who is just naturally infected, or just vaccinated,” Professor Blakely said.

‘Cannot rule out’ a worse variant

While vulnerable people still need to be protected throughout the current wave, Professor Blakely said he did not believe there was a need to reintroduce heavier restrictions.

However, he added, a new, more-virulent strain of the virus might force restrictions to return if Australia was not prepared.

“I’d say the chance of a variant that’s not as friendly to us as a normal one happening before the end of this year is around 20 per cent,” he said.

“Imagine that we had a variant come along that kicked off sideways from [the] Kappa or Delta [variant] and had a few mutations that made it really infectious and as virulent as Delta. Then [we’d have] a problem.”

Tony Blakely

He said modelling that he and his colleagues at the University of Melbourne have been working on has suggested that a combination of N95 masks and administering new, “next-generation” vaccines could play a significant role in protecting people.

“The K95 and N95 masks are so good that, if we have one of these really bad variants, we should be giving those masks out to everybody in the population to try [to] avoid having a lockdown,” he said.

“And, therefore, I think we should be stockpiling that sort of mask in warehouses at the moment, to be ready in case that undesirable eventuality happens.”

Next-generation vaccines are under development

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) last week announced a recommendation of a fourth booster shot for immunocompromised Australians and those aged over 65 years.

Professor Blakely said that, while it was a sensible move, the rest of the population might be better-served waiting for what comes next.

It was the elderly and immunocompromised people who “you would start with”, he said.

“All the while, you’re looking at your horizon, scanning to see what other vaccines are coming down the pipeline,” he said.

“What I hope will happen by the end of this year is [that] we’ll all have had at least one dose of a next-generation vaccine that’s got better coverage than the current ones.

“Many [epidemiologists] expect that we’ll see, at least for the next five years or so, winter variants and maybe even spring and autumn variants come for a while, and we’ll keep seeing these rolling foothills as we work our way off this mountain top,” he said.