SINGAPORE - The Covid-19 situation in Singapore can be compared to a game of snakes and ladders with the Omicron variant determining if the country remains on track to living with the virus, said Health Minister Ong Ye Kung on Tuesday (Nov 30).
If it is more infectious or harmful than other existing variants, and if current vaccines do not work well against it, the country will have landed on a "snake".
"We will go down, and it will set us back a long way," said Mr Ong, who co-chairs the multi-ministry task force tackling the pandemic.
If the variant proves to be milder but more infectious, it could become dominant over the Delta variant - a positive sign which could enable Singapore to leap forward in its efforts to treat Covid-19 as an endemic disease.
"We don't know what's the next throw of the dice and which square we will land in," the minister said at a press conference chaired by the task force.
"It may just be another variant that makes no great impact. You land on the boring square and we continue our current path to transit to living with Covid-19 as a resilient nation."
As Singapore and the world work to find out more about the new variant, Mr Ong said the country will take a prudent approach by implementing measures to prevent the Omicron variant from establishing itself in the community.
Little is known about the variant, which was first detected in South Africa and has not yet been reported in Singapore.
Scientists have reported a large number of mutations in the variant's spike protein - the part of the virus that latches on to human cells. This has raised concerns that vaccine efficacy may be impacted as a result.
The authorities are monitoring the situation closely, said the Health Ministry in a statement on Tuesday.
In particular, they are looking out for information on the new variant's transmissibility and incubation period, as well as how long patients remain infectious, the severity of the illness and if existing vaccines are effective against it.
At Tuesday's press conference, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said border measures are Singapore's first line of defence against the Omicron variant.
They buy the country time to shore up its other defences.
Even so, experience has shown that the country cannot rely solely on such measures to stop the new variant, given that countries with very strict border regimes, such as China and New Zealand, saw Delta outbreaks, he said.
This means that vaccination and boosters, as well as contact tracing and safe management measures remain critical, he added.
Singapore's approach has been to stay nimble and adjust measures quickly based on new information that emerges, in order to ensure its various lines of defence hold, Mr Wong said.
"This will not be the last variant of concern. There will be new mutations and we just have to be prepared. It may well turn out that Omicron will be not so threatening, a bit of a non-event. It may, we hope. It may turn out to be worse.
"But there may also be a possibility that another mutation down the road, next year, turns out to be far more threatening."
The minister acknowledged that people will feel "a certain level of weariness or fatigue" upon hearing news of this new variant, given that the world is now entering the third year of the pandemic.
"But I hope we can also draw strength from our responses throughout the past two years - how we have kept faith with one another and supported each other throughout this journey," he said.
"And if we continue with that approach, we can stay united, rally together and all do our part to get through this pandemic as one people."