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The newest COVID-19 variant Omicron triggers a global alarm; here’s what we know

The emergence of the newest coronavirus strain Omicron has put governments and businesses around the world on high alert. 

Following the discovery of the first cases of the Omicron strain in Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that the country’s plans to reopen borders to skilled migrants and students on December 1 will be reviewed. 

Previously, the government had declared that fully vaccinated eligible visa holders will be able to enter Australia without the requirement to apply for a travel exemption beginning December 1st. This includes skilled and student cohorts, as well as humanitarian, working holidaymakers, and provisional family visa holders.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has designated the variant B.1.1.529 (named Omicron), “a variant of concern” on the advice of WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution. 

This decision was based on the evidence presented that Omicron has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves, for example, on how easily it spreads or the severity of illness it causes.

According to WHO, the following is a summary of what is currently known:

Researchers in South Africa and around the world are conducting studies to better understand many aspects of Omicron and will continue to share the findings of these studies as they become available.  

Transmissibility: Although it is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible compared to other variants, including Delta, the number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant. Epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors.  

The severity of disease:  Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of a specific infection with Omicron. So, it is not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including Delta.   

Effectiveness of Omicron infection 

Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron, as compared to other variants of concern, but the information is limited. More information on this will become available in the coming days and weeks. 

Effectiveness of vaccines: WHO is working with technical partners to understand the potential impact of this variant on our existing countermeasures, including vaccines. Vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating variant, Delta. Current vaccines remain effective against severe disease and death.   

Effectiveness of current tests: The widely used PCR tests continue to detect infection, including infection with Omicron, as we have seen with other variants as well. Studies are ongoing to determine whether there is any impact on other types of tests, including rapid antigen detection tests.  

Effectiveness of current treatments: Corticosteroids and IL6 Receptor Blockers will still be effective for managing patients with severe COVID-19. Other treatments will be assessed to see if they are still as effective given the changes to parts of the virus in the Omicron variant.  

Measures announced so far

The Australian Government announced that it will implement additional border security measures as a precaution to safeguard Australians against the new Omicron variant of concern, based on medical advice supplied by Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly.

  • Effective immediately, anyone who is not a citizen or permanent resident of Australia, or their immediate family including parents of citizens, and who have been in African countries where the Omicron variant has been detected and spread – within the past 14 days – will not be able to enter Australia. 

The countries are South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique.

  • Australian citizens and permanent residents, immediate family members including parents arriving from these countries will need to go into immediate supervised quarantine for 14 days subject to jurisdictional arrangements.
  • Anyone who has already arrived in Australia and who has been in any of the nine countries within the past 14 days must immediately isolate themselves and get tested for COVID-19 and follow jurisdictional quarantine requirements which will include quarantine for 14 days from the time of departure from southern Africa.
  • These restrictions also apply to people, for instance, international students and skilled migrants, arriving from the safe travel zones we have established with New Zealand, Singapore, Japan and the Republic of Korea, who have been in any of the nine countries within the past 14 days.
  • The Government will suspend all flights from the nine southern African countries for a period of 14 days as a matter of precaution.

Australians are urged to get their COVID-19 information from trusted sources, such as the Australia.gov.au website.

Find more information on the classification of Omicron (B.1.1.529) here

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Yajush Gupta

Yajush Gupta

Yajush is a journalist at Dynamic Business. He previously worked with Reuters as a business correspondent and holds a postgrad degree in print journalism.

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