Date published: 
29 November 2021
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

MICHAEL ROWLAND:         

Let's get more now on our top story, the first confirmed cases of the Omicron COVID strain in Australia. The nation's Chief Health Officer, Paul Kelly, joins us now from Canberra. Paul, very good morning to you. Thank you for making the time, I know you're very busy at the moment. Firstly, a lot of our viewers would be a bit anxious. What do we know, here in Australia, about this new strain?

PAUL KELLY:

Good morning, Michael, and good morning to everyone watching. So, what do we know? Firstly, this is a variant of concern, this Omicron variant. It's the 13th variant that's had that designation from the World Health Organization. Why are we concerned? Firstly, genetically, it is- there are quite a few changes to this virus. I will stress, that it's still the same SARS-CoV-2 that we've become used to, but it is different from previous versions and there are some suggestions from that genetic variation that there could be changes in severity, transmissibility, or indeed, interference the efficacy of vaccines and treatments.

On those, firstly on severity, there are some signs in South Africa, but particularly those in other countries - and that number is growing overnight - that it is relatively mild compared with previous versions. But it's early days and we need to be careful of that. But that's- there's no sign that it is more severe at the moment.

Secondly, transmissibility. It does transmit from person-to-person quite readily, at least at well as the Delta virus, and so that means that it will spread. And thirdly, in terms of the vaccines, there is no solid evidence at the moment that there is a problem with that. But we are looking very closely and we're looking for further advice and laboratory studies in coming days and weeks.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:         

Okay. That's all sounding fairly promising. On vaccines, Paul Kelly, it is still part of, I guess, the COVID virus family. Could, in the worst-case scenario, vaccines be tweaked effectively? The existing vaccines tweaked to counter Omicron?

PAUL KELLY:                        

Yeah. Well, firstly, that may not be necessary but if it was the case, we've already heard from several of the vaccine manufacturers, including two of those- well, all three, in fact, that are licensed here, that they're working on that. So Moderna, for example, put out a press release on the very next morning after the variant was said to be of concern, to say that they were working on a specific vaccine for that variant. It is one of the major technological and scientific advantages that has happened from this pandemic, that mRNA platform can be changed very quickly. And the other ones also, AstraZeneca, can change the make-up of the vaccine very quickly. So we are well placed, if that was to be the case. But I would stress at the moment, there's is no evidence that that would actually be necessary.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:         

Is the closure of Australia's international border one of the options on the table?

PAUL KELLY:                        

So, you know, we have taken swift and proportionate action in that regard over the weekend. Minister Hunt and myself did make that announcement on Saturday in relation to those nine southern African countries. So that's very much in line with what most other countries in the world are doing.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:         

[Interrupts] But I'm asking more broadly of closing the border to all countries? Is that on the table?

PAUL KELLY:                        

Yeah, so I spoke with a colleague at the Ministry of Health in Israel yesterday; that's the decision they've made. You know, they've had- that's for their own- of course, they're a sovereign nation, that can make that decision, and that relates to their specific circumstances in Israel. But most other countries in the world, at the moment, are concentrating on that place where we know that there is virus circulating in, probably, quite large numbers in South Africa and the other nations that we're looking at. I'll continue to give that best advice to the government. It ultimately is a decision for the national government, for the federal government, and they listen. I've already spoken to the Prime Minister and the Minister this morning and we've been talking several times over the weekend and I'll continue to give that advice.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:         

Okay, so based on those conversations, the Prime Minister and the premiers and the chief ministers, would happily agree- I mean, there's been nothing happy about it, but would agree to the advice, if you needed to give it, that the international border to all countries should close?

PAUL KELLY:                        

Well, as I said, I'm not going to speculate on Government decisions. But we are watching very closely and actively engaging with our international partners in the scientific field, but also the diplomatic field, to get a sense for how the world is going with this.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:         

[Interrupts] Okay.

PAUL KELLY:                        

And, as I said, there are a lot of things we don't know yet about this virus. As that information comes, then that will guide the decision-making.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:         

Out of an abundance of caution, should, short of the border being closed - and no-one wants that, clearly - but should a blanket 14-day hotel quarantine regime be brought back for all arrivals in Australia, both Australians and visitors?

PAUL KELLY:                        

So, we're taking a risk-balanced approach at the moment and concentrating on those nine southern African countries. We have increased our surveillance at the border, and after the border. We're working very closely with our colleagues in New South Wales and Victoria, particularly, because they're the ones that have had quarantine-free travel, as well as in the ACT, as to what is the best approach. At the moment, we've bought time to get more information and to consider that balance, but there's always pros and cons for these sorts of decisions. And that's what we're doing at the moment. We had- AHPPC met over the weekend, every day. We'll have another meeting today. There will be further discussions on that matter and, you know, when decisions are made, of course, we'll always communicate those.

MICHAEL ROWLAND:         

Okay. Professor Kelly, I'm sure our viewers appreciate you communicating all that information to them this morning. Thank you so much for your time.

PAUL KELLY:                        

You're welcome, Michael.

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