For more than three months, Australia has watched in horror as a mutant coronavirus strain continues to tear through Europe, shutting down cities and leaving economies in tatters.
In many European countries, schools have closed again, lockdowns have been reintroduced and strict curfews have returned in attempts to stop the spread.
It’s a grim preview of what could happen in Australia if the new variant takes off here.
Early studies suggest the strain – first detected in Britain and now known as the B117 strain – is up to 70 per cent more infectious than other variants.
But despite some returned travellers testing positive to this new strain, it hasn’t undone all our hard work.
So far, we’ve managed to escape serious outbreaks despite several hotel quarantine workers testing positive to the new strain in Queensland, NSW, South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria.
So why hasn’t it wreaked havoc here, as initially feared?
Studies don’t tell the whole story
Just because laboratory studies suggest the B117 strain can spread from person to person more easily, it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll see that pattern play out in real life.
That’s according to Associate Professor Paul Griffin, director of infectious diseases at the University of Queensland.
“The laboratory studies are useful but they don’t tell the whole the story,” he told The New Daily.
“That’s why we need to have clinical studies to know what the implications of those mutations are before we extrapolate too much… and infer how contagious it is.”
Professor William Rawlinson, a senior medical virologist at UNSW, said the new strain was more infectious, but “it’s not wildfire”.
“It has replaced other strains in other countries, but I think it needs to be put in perspective,” he said.
“It’s more infectious, not a super-virus.”
Professor Rawlinson added the increased transmissibility of a virus was just one important way the virus jumps from person to person.
There are lots of other contributing factors, like whether or not people were socially distancing.
We’re not Britain (or Europe, or the US)
At least 75 countries around the world have now detected the new UK variant, according to cov-lineages.org, which tracks the global spread of the new COVID-19 strains.
And it’s moving quickly.
In the United States, the mutant strain is doubling its reach about every 10 days, according to a recent study that is yet to be peer-reviewed.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: “This strain is likely to become [the] more dominant strain of the virus globally.”
Although Australians have worked hard to manage local outbreaks, we’ve also been very lucky.
Many elements have contributed to the grim situation in the UK, where more than 112,000 people have died from COVID-19 and nearly 4 million have become infected.
Associate Professor Griffin said cold weather, the changing of seasons and different social distancing restrictions in the UK may have played a role in helping the new strain take off.
“While the UK has had a terrible time, it wasn’t just because of the new strain,” he said.
“It is more infectious, but perhaps not as much as first thought.”
Australia’s first class infection control
Despite several occasions where a hotel quarantine worker was found carrying the UK strain around an Australian city, we’ve avoided a fresh wave of cases.
So if this new strain is so contagious, then why haven’t we been slammed with outbreaks?
“It comes down to a lot of hard work, a bit of luck and a lot of preparedness,” Professor Rawlinson said.
“In Australia, we’re not seeing it spread because we’re getting very, very little community spread of virus. Once you stop that spread, you stop the spread of whatever the most recent strain is.”