Coronaviruses mutate frequently and new variants are seen at times with increased transmissibility.
A 22 December 2020 statement by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) noted the emergence of a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the United Kingdom (UK). The variant is rapidly becoming the dominant virus in the UK, and is now being seen in other regions of the world. It is also clear that in addition to the UK variant, other new variants are emerging globally.
Two variants, B.1.1.7 that emerged in the UK and B.1.351 that emerged in South Africa, have been shown to spread more readily between individuals than previous SARS-CoV-2 viruses, that is, they have higher transmissibility. However, there is still much not known about these viruses, including whether they result in cases being infectious for a longer period. To date there is no evidence that either of these variants cause more severe disease or that the current vaccines would not be effective against the new variants.
From 7 January 2021, additional precautions will be put in place to manage persons with any of the more transmissible variants. These include a longer minimum period of isolation and assessment of infectiousness by experts before release from isolation. Stringent quarantine and infection control measures will be maintained to prevent the introduction of these viruses into the Australian community.
The AHPPC recognises that these precautions are necessary to reduce the risk of these variants entering the Australian community.
None of the community cases in New South Wales and Victoria have a more transmissible variant of the virus.
The AHPPC with the support of its expert standing committees - the Public Health Laboratory Network (PHLN) and the Communicable Diseases Network Australia (CDNA) - will continue to closely monitor international information about variant SARS-CoV-2. The AHPPC receives a weekly report from the Communicable Disease Genomics Network (CDGN), a standing committee of PHLN, about the characteristics of new variants detected in Australia.
AHPPC acknowledges the importance of rapid genomic data sharing to detect mutations and assist with outbreak investigations for COVID-19. Whole genome sequencing (WGS) of Australian COVID-19 cases from all jurisdictions is occurring. Laboratories across Australia are routinely monitoring sequences for variants, including both the United Kingdom and Republic of South Africa. Australia’s world class system for genomic analysis of SARS-CoV-2 will ensure cases caused by new variants are rapidly identified, thereby enabling cases to be managed to mitigate any risk to public health. PHLN and CDGN are continually reviewing and improving best practices and processes for WGS in Australia. It is critical for the national COVID-19 response that each state and territory ensures the delivery of accurate viral genomic analysis in the shortest turnaround time possible.
Read previous statements from the AHPPC.