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

FRAN KELLY:                        

So, health authorities here have confirmed that two fully-vaccinated passengers from southern Africa who arrived in Sydney over the weekend are infected with Omicron, the variant. The Prime Minister now says the Government will reconsider whether to allow international students and skilled migrants to return from Wednesday. Australia's already introduced targeted quarantine requirements for people coming from South Africa and eight southern African nations- eight other southern African nations. Professor Paul Kelly is the Chief Medical Officer; I spoke with him earlier.

[Excerpt]

PAUL KELLY:                         

Thanks for having me, Fran, and look, just so we don't run out of time. I just want to acknowledge your incredible service to the nation as you've been on Breakfast, and I've always seen you as a very key partner through this whole period, listening to you every day. So good luck with your next stage.

FRAN KELLY:                         

Thanks very much.

PAUL KELLY:                         

You're welcome. In terms of what's happening, yes, the World Health Organization has labelled this as a variant of concern for several reasons. Firstly, it is quite a different virus then we've seen before. It's still the same SARS-CoV-2 virus, it is not a new virus. But it is- it has quite a lot of changes in it. So that's the first thing, what- from the virology perspective. Then there's the key issues that we look at, and the World Health Organization has looked at. in terms of concern. Firstly, does it cause more severe disease? That's an open question at the moment. Preliminary information from several countries actually suggests the opposite, that it could actually be causing more mild disease. But I'd be very cautious in going- making a conclusion about that at this stage, because it's very early days. But that is certainly something we're closely monitoring. The second one, is it transmissible? And it definitely is transmissible between people. It may be more transmissible, even than the Delta virus, but again, we don't have conclusive information on that. And the third one is, do the vaccines and do the treatments still work? And there's no evidence at the moment that it interferes with vaccine effectiveness. But we have seen, and for example, the two cases that have been diagnosed in Australia have been fully vaccinated. Now, we see that with other strains as well, of course; none of the vaccines are 100 per-cent effective against any of the strains, so again, that's an open question. So yes look, we're concerned, we're gathering information, and we're taking action appropriately.

FRAN KELLY:                         

Okay, I'll come back to the vaccine question in a moment. But in terms of its transmissibility, we spoke to Norman Swan a little earlier. He told us he's spoken to epidemiologists in South Africa who believe there's some evidence suggesting that Omicron's been around for a couple of months. And now we have the New South Wales Health Minister, Brad Hazzard, who's saying that this virus may have arrived here earlier this month. We just don't know yet, we've only got these two cases. If it has, I mean, what do you think the chances are that Omicron has already been in the country before we discovered these last two cases? And if so, what does that say about, I suppose, it's level of danger? If we're not picking it up, why wouldn't we have been picking it up?

PAUL KELLY:                         

So look, the- two questions there. The first one is, how this virus has come about? Now, viruses change, that's the nature of viruses. They- this SARS-CoV-2 Virus has changed a lot. We know about those now 13 variants of concern. But behind the variants of concern there's been other variants that have been under investigation from in the global authorities like WHO and us as well, and behind that there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of minor variations that have happened. So that's what viruses do. Viral epidemiologists, or evolutionary biologists in fact, can speculate about how that drift happens. And by looking at the particular genetic makeup of the virus, they can make some guesses at how long that might have been circulating in humans. And yes, I've had those discussions, the same as Norman has with our own Eddie Holmes here as well, who's an evolutionary biologist in viral- and viruses. And he had the same theory, that it's probably been in southern Africa for a couple of months. And when you think about it, what we're seeing, and I heard your interrupted discussion with the South African colleague earlier, what we're seeing there is kind of typical of that sort of event. So it slowly builds up over time, and then suddenly it becomes clear that there's something new going on. We will remember that with all of the other major changes in the virus - the original Wuhan issues, when Alpha first struck, when Delta first struck - all of those things where there is a highly transmissible virus, it builds up over a few weeks or months, and then suddenly it's noticed.

Here in Australia, we have a very good, you know, very high degree of preparedness for finding those matters, and the genomic analysis capability we've built up over the last couple of years is standing in very good stead. So if it had been here for- earlier, if those tests have been done and had been found, and the genomics had been formed, then we would have seen it. But we don't know what we don't know Fran. So we have had the border open since 1 November. It has been actually the law in New South Wales, ACT and Victoria, for people to get tests once they arrived. But that hasn't been 100 per-cent happening. So we're- one of the things we've done in the last few days is to absolutely and actively go out and find anyone who's come in from southern Africa during that period to make sure they have been tested, they have been interviewed; if necessary their contacts have also been interviewed and potentially tested. So we are doing that now, as well as very active surveillance at the border.

FRAN KELLY:                         

Okay, just in terms of messaging, we don't know yet whether this variant will be- whether Omnicrom [sic]- Omicron will be able to escape the- get through the vaccination. But if there is some suggestion that vaccine gives us greater protection still, and that seems to be the message I'm hearing, should we be stronger in messaging around our booster shots, then? Should it be, rather not so much oh well, now you can have a booster, and that's good. Should booster, as Norman Swan suggested earlier, be sort of part of the primary schedule, that it's not a booster, it's a three shot vaccine? Is that what we're learning here?

PAUL KELLY:                         

So yeah, as I said, Fran, that's still an open question about vaccine effectiveness. As far as we know so far, there's no evidence that the vaccine will be less effective. But we keep an open mind and watching the science on all of that information. Certainly we know, and the ATAGI Group have given their advice about the boosters at around six months or later from the primary course, and we- I, absolutely. I want people to go out and get that booster right now, this week. If they are in that due time, that will give the best protection.

FRAN KELLY:                         

Is it time to allow GPs to give it earlier, if people have concerns, or they're going to be travelling? I mean, GPs at the moment are saying it's got to be six months?

PAUL KELLY:                         

There is some flexibility there, Fran, already. In terms of, you know, so for example, we are actively giving a booster program into aged care because, of course, they were some of the first people to get the primary course.

FRAN KELLY:                         

And importantly, too, in the few days that you've known about this, some borders have been shut to some southern African countries. Returning travellers now need to self-isolate for 72 hours. It's been reported that several state and territory chief health officers were pushing on Saturday for the international borders to be sealed altogether. Given that we do know so little about Omicron, where are you advising the Government on this? To go further in towards of closing international borders? Do you think that's where we'll end up, buy us some time?

PAUL KELLY:

So I look, I'm not going to speculate on Government decisions, of course, Fran. But they- I can tell you that they- the Government does listen to my advice. I'm the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Advisor on to the Federal Government on these matters. We have been working very closely with my colleagues on AHPPC, the chief health officers from around the states and territories. We've met every day since this broke, and we'll continue to meet every day throughout this week, for sure. Look, we're in line with what most other countries are doing at the moment. But as more information arrives, often overnight, as it has again overnight last night, we'll be looking at that. So, you know, Israel, for example, has gone further in terms of their approach to which countries they're concerned about. I spoke to Israel yesterday, through a close colleague there and the Minister of Health. And you know, there are domestic reasons why they've gone down that path, and that's their prerogative. But the US, Canada, New Zealand, ourselves, Europe and the UK are all pretty much aligned on concentrating on that southern African region for the moment. And you know, I'll be advising the Government accordingly if those matters change.

FRAN KELLY:                         

Paul Kelly, we appreciate your time. Thank you very much.

PAUL KELLY:                         

You're welcome Fran.

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