Infectious diseases expert: When it comes to the Omicron variant, there is hope for New Zealand

An infectious diseases expert believes the country is well placed to detect and respond to any cases of the Omicron Covid-19 variant.

The World Health Organisation declared the new variant to be “of concern” and New Zealand has banned travel from nine southern African countries.

Omicron was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on November 24, and has since been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong, Israel, Germany, the UK, Italy and the Czech Republic.

The WHO said the variant had a large number of mutations, and early evidence suggested a possible increased risk of reinfection.

Massey University professor Nigel French said not much was known about Omicron yet, but he was optimistic vaccines may still protect against the new variant.

“There’s no evidence to date to suggest that vaccination, particularly if you’ve had two doses, would not protect against this new variant or any other new variant, but we just don’t know,” he said.

“And it will become more and more apparent, particularly if it does spread to other countries with higher vaccination rates.”

French said sequencing technology should pick up any cases at the border and the country was well placed to detect and respond to any cases of the Omicron Covid-19 variant.

In yesterday’s Covid-19 update, the Ministry of Health said it was monitoring the Omicron variant.

“This particular strain is in its infancy and as with any emerging developments to do with Covid-19 we are closely watching and monitoring evidence and countries’ responses,” the Ministry said in its statement.

“We will advise on any potential impacts for New Zealand, noting that we remain in a good position to minimise the impact of any new variants with isolation and routine testing of international arrivals.”

Gary McLean from the London Metropolitan University said laboratories would be carrying out tests to see exactly what threat the variant poses.

He said considering the make-up of the new variant, and the speed with which it is spreading, it was right to be cautious.

“There’s a staggering number of new mutations in the spike that have never been seen before and that also corresponds to sharing mutations with other variants that we know about well, so it’s really worrying,” he said.

He said work was under way to see if vaccines needed to be adjusted.

The head of the South African Medical Association told the BBC that the cases found so far in South Africa – where only about 24 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated – were not severe, but said investigations into the variant were still at a very early stage.

“The patients are mostly complaining about a sore body and tiredness, extreme tiredness and we see it in the younger generation, it’s not the older people… We’re not talking about patients that might go straight to a hospital and be admitted,” Dr Angelique Coetzee said.

South Africa has also complained it was being punished instead of applauded for discovering the concerning new variant, the BBC reported.

A statement from the South African foreign ministry strongly criticised the travel bans.

“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” it said.

The bans were “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker”.

The statement added that the reaction had been completely different when new variants were discovered elsewhere in the world.

The UK, Australia, Japan, India and Canada have all announced new measures for travellers from Southern African countries.

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