New Omicron variant hits Australian shores

A new variant of COVID-19 was identified late last week and has now hit Australian shores.

Over the weekend, the Omicron variant was deemed by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a “variant of concern”, but scientists are still grappling with its qualities and its potential threat.

Previously known as the South African variant and the B.1.1.529 variant, Omicron is the fifth strain of COVID-19 to be designated a variant of concern by the WHO. It has sent some countries scrambling to protect themselves from what some say may be a variant more contagious than Delta.

Some international borders have shut, travel guidance has changed and share markets have dipped. Dozens of countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, had already closed their borders to the nine affected southern African nations.

However, the WHO has called for calm until more is known about the variant.

Scientists do not know a lot about this strain, but it is believed to be more transmissible than previous variants. It could take weeks to understand the variant’s mutations and whether existing vaccines and treatments would remain effective.

The variant was first identified in South Africa has been found in Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, the UK, Belgium, Denmark – and is now in Australia.

Two returned travellers, who are fully vaccinated and were asymptomatic, tested positive for the variant in Australia, NSW Health confirmed late yesterday.

They arrived from southern Africa on Saturday. Around 260 passengers and air crew on the flight are considered close contacts

The confirmed cases have changed state and federal government quarantine requirements.

Read: You may not be able to go overseas, even after borders reopen

Late last week, Health Minister Greg Hunt said he wasn’t concerned about the virus entering Australia and ruled out banning international flights from Omicron-affected countries.

Anyone arriving in NSW from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini, Malawi, and the Seychelles – irrespective of vaccination status – is now required to go into hotel quarantine for 14 days.

South Australia now requires travellers from any country to quarantine for 14 days instead of seven, and Western Australia has tightened its border with SA.

Queensland will still open its borders when 80 per cent of the eligible population aged over 16 has received two doses of vaccine.

Travellers from other countries arriving in NSW, Victoria and the ACT are also required to immediately go to their place of residence or accommodation and isolate for 72 hours pending further health advice.

“These are all sensible measures to buy us time, because at this stage, this is a new virus and we don’t know the details of what it means for our communities or anybody else at this stage,” said Queensland’s acting chief health officer Peter Aitken.

“We need to be cautious – we don’t need to be alarmed.”

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet says Australians will have to “learn to live” with new strains such as Omicron.

“We need to learn to live alongside the virus. We also need to live alongside the various strains of the virus that will come our way,” he said.

“But the best thing that we can do is to get vaccinated and get booster shots.”

Read: Will you be eligible for a COVID booster shot? And when?

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said the new variant was not well understood but that governments were working to ascertain the risks.

“What we do know, if we look back at Delta, which was clearly a lot more infectious than its previous COVID incarnations, is that it only took three weeks for Delta to get across 53 nations,” he said.

“It’s going to be hard to ascertain just how many people are already here that may have been in those nine southern African nations in the last 14 days or so … What I would say to our community more broadly is that vaccinations really do make a difference.”

Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton says that while little is known about the new variant, it will not put Australia “back to square one”.

While questions remain about the new strain’s transmissibility and vaccine efficacy, Dr Sutton says 90.7 per cent vaccine coverage in the 12-plus population will give protection, as will the boosters given six months after the second dose.

“This is not back to the beginning. We are not back to square one,” he said.

“The vaccination coverage we’ve got is absolutely critical in protecting them and will, I’m sure, provide protection. We just are yet to determine how much.

“We really do need a few more weeks to understand exactly how much the vaccines given in Australia will protect against this variant.”

While nations are jumping to attention, the WHO and health experts say people should not overreact while studies of the variant are under way.

Instead, it urges nations to get vaccinated and to help developing countries get vaccinated.

Health experts say, at the very least, vaccination will cushion the effects of Omicron, while others say the variant may be more transmissible, but the effects may be milder.

Vaccine manufacturers say they already have plans to adapt their shots to combat the Omicron variant, with tweaks that will be effective against the new variant expected within 100 days.

Read: Mild side effects to long-term protection: How COVID-19 vaccines work

According to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Mr Hunt, the variant may present no greater threat than other COVID variants.

Mr Hunt spoke to the media on Sunday morning.

He says Omicron is not more likely to put a person in hospital, or break through the protections provided by vaccination.

“The preliminary advice, which of course is subject to emerging evidence, is that we have seen no signs that this is a more dangerous disease in terms of its impact on hospitalisation, serious illness or loss of life,” he said.

“At this stage, we have seen no signs in relation to its resistance to vaccines.

“But constant updating of medical advice is what we’ve done throughout the pandemic…”

Will you be on tenterhooks until there is more information about the severity of this strain? Or does vaccination give you confidence? Should we be sending more vaccines to south African countries? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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