The new COVID-19 variant emerging from southern Africa would not have any immediate effect on Australia’s plan to reopen after rolling lockdowns, the country’s health minister said.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said this is because there has been “very little traffic” directly from South Africa, and Australia’s high vaccination rate. The last repatriation flight from South Africa arrived last week and those people were in quarantine at the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory.
But he said Australia would be flexible and responsible, as it was during the Delta outbreak in India when it paused flights.
“As we’ve always been, we’re flexible. And if the medical advice is that we need to change, we won’t hesitate,” he told reporters Friday.
Hunt said Australian officials were working with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and international partners to investigate whether it is a “major new variant.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia monitors in real time all new variants and pays attention to how other countries respond.
But regarding the new B1 1529 variant, he said during a press conference in South Australia, “I’m advised that is under investigation and not as a variant of concern. But that can change.”
The WHO have named the latest variant Omicron. It first emerged in Botswana and has been detected in South Africa, Hong Kong, Israel, and Belgium.
It has double the number of mutations as the Delta variant that sparked a third wave of outbreaks and lockdowns in Australia this year.
“It is not time to break the glass on the alarm, I don’t think, but I’m as concerned about this as I have been since Delta,” Burnet Institute director Brendan Crabb told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“A state of heightened alert and caution is appropriate for us in Australia and for the world.”
Crabb described the new strain as having “a whole host of mutations that, I must say, makes me have a sharp inhalation of breath.”
He said vaccination and infection control measures, like wearing protective masks and contact tracing, would be most important, against the Omicron.
About 86 percent of Australians aged 16 and older are double-dosed.
The federal government is sending letters to every household in the country urging people to get their booster shot six months after becoming double-dosed.