Health

Australia Has Recorded Its First Cases Of The Omicron Variant, Here’s What We Know So Far

"It's early days and we need to be careful."

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Australia has recorded its first cases of the latest COVID-19 variant — Omicron — over the weekend.

As we explained on Friday, very little is known about the new variant, which was only discovered last week. However, as cases begin to pop up across the globe, we’re starting to gain a better understanding of the new strain, and the potential threat it poses to Australia.

So far, Australia has recorded two cases of Omicron in New South Wales, as well as a single case in the Northern Territory. While no cases have been recorded in Victoria so far, contact tracers are working hard to notify close contacts of a person who has since tested positive to the variant after visiting the state from New South Wales.

All three cases are returned travellers from overseas and are in isolation in specialised quarantine accommodation. So, on account of the fact that the situation has already changed so much since we last unpacked it, let’s take a look at Australia’s response so far.

What’s Happening With The Borders?

Following Australia’s first recorded cases, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has given a lengthy press conference on Monday morning, in which he quashed fears regarding further border restrictions (apart from those imposed on southern African countries), at least for the time being.

“The actions taken, as we know: already, we’ve stopped the flights from nine countries in southern Africa,” Hunt said. “We have temporarily banned non-citizens who have been in those nine countries from entering Australia. We’ve required Australians who have been in those nine countries to have 14 days’ quarantine.

“We’ve applied those rules to those coming under bubble arrangements, travel bubbles. And we’ve also required returned Australians who have been in Australia prior to the commencement of these rules to undertake quarantine from 14 days after – for as long as 14 days after their departure from the southern African area.

“And we’ve worked with the states and territories, who have put in place public health orders to cover all arrivals with home isolation for a 72-hour period if they’re coming into Australia.”

Hunt also clarified that the government is looking at further steps, but considering we didn’t even know this variant existed last week, this is obviously subject to change as more information becomes available. “There are additional actions which the Australian government is now taking. Firstly, the prime minister is convening the National Security Committee today to review the evidence and to review the range of actions in relation to the Omicron variant,” he said.

“We will not hesitate to take additional steps if the medical evidence is that more are required. We convened our first meeting on this on Friday, and on Saturday we took the steps to cease those flights and to close those borders.”

How Does The Omicron Variant Respond To The Vaccine And How Bad Are The Symptoms?

Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly (not the musician, sadly) has also given an update, noting that the symptoms we’re seeing so far as relatively mild compared to Delta and other variants. However, it’s also worth noting that we haven’t seen the longer-term impacts of this strain, so this is very much subject to change.

“On severity, there are some signs in South Africa but particularly those in other countries…that it is relatively mild compared with previous versions,” he said. “But it’s early days and we need to be careful of that. In terms of the vaccines, there is no solid evidence that there is a problem with, that but we’re looking very closely and we’re looking for further advice.”

As Kelly went on to explain, we simply don’t know much about Omicron just yet, so we should be on alert, but also not having a complete menty b over it right now. “There’s a lot of things we don’t know yet about this virus,” he said.

What Is Scott Morrison Saying?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also stepped up to quash fears regarding the new variant, confirming that we’re very much not back to square one with the pandemic.

“We have had many new variants, we have had many variants of concern,” he said. “This is another variant of concern and it is one that the initial information is suggesting some [increased] transmissibility but even that, as yet, is not fully proven.

“So it is important we just calmly and carefully consider this information.”

Is There Still Cause For Concern?

The main concern with Omicron is that it has 32 mutations in the spike protein — AKA the part of the virus that we base our vaccines on. Unfortunately, this could impact how quickly it spreads among people.

According to the World Health Organisation, it is already showing faster rates of transmissibility in South Africa, compared to Delta.

“The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa,” the WHO said in a statement. “This variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.”

The symptoms — at least in vaccinated people — are presenting much less severe symptoms than other COVID strains, so far. But according to the most recent WHO update, “it is not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including Delta.”