An epidemiologist says it's possible Omicron could be a "blessing" rather than a disaster for the globe, pointing to reports it may lead to more mild symptoms than Delta.
Omicron is quickly popping up around the world despite a large number of countries enforcing travel restrictions on people coming from southern African nations where the coronavirus variant is running rampant.
While no cases have yet been detected in New Zealand's managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) facilities, it has been recorded in Australia.
Professor Tony Blakely from the University of Melbourne told Australia's Sunrise programme that Omicron may actually be a "blessing", as initial reports suggest it is less severe than Delta despite being more infectious.
Its apparent high transmissibility could lead it to displace Delta, he says.
"This one should be more mild, but we don't know exactly how much more mild it is, so that means that the hospitalisation rate should, but we are still learning, be less severe," he explained.
"It might be our 'get out of this pandemic' card."
- Black market sales of vaccination passes reported to police
- COVID-19 Protection Framework 'traffic light' settings released for New Zealand
- Epidemiologist says uncertainty awaits as Omicron emerges
- Two Omicron cases confirmed in Sydney, 260 close contacts ordered to isolate
While optimistic, Dr Blakely stressed not a lot was yet known about Omicron.
Dr Angelique Coetzee, a private practitioner and chair of South African Medical Association, who was among the first to notice the new strain of coronavirus, reported in November that patients had different symptoms to Delta. She described them as "very mild".
"We have seen a lot of Delta patients during the third wave. And this doesn't fit in the clinical picture," she said.
"Most of them are seeing very, very mild symptoms and none of them so far have admitted patients to surgeries. We have been able to treat these patients conservatively at home."
Unlike with Delta, she said patients had reported no loss of smell or taste and no major oxygen drop.
Maria van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization (WHO) technical lead on COVID-19, said on Thursday that more information about Omicron was expected within days. That's likely to focus on its level of transmissibility. It's still unclear if vaccines will be effective against the variant.
Dr Blakely warned, however, that even if Omicron didn't cause severe symptoms, that doesn't stop another variant doing so one day.
"There will be more variants, and it is not guaranteed that the variant after Omicron and the next one will each be milder, it could become more severe. So it's a really interesting time to be an epidemiologist."