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

SARAH HARRIS:                   

Well, just when we thought we were winning the war on COVID, a new strain is causing worry around the world. World Health Organization has dubbed Omicron a variant of concern which was first detected in Africa and has now been found in a growing number of countries including Australia. Joining us now from Canberra with the latest is Australia's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly. Professor, thank you so much for being with us this morning. What exactly do yes know about Omicron? Is it deadlier than Delta?

PAUL KELLY:                         

So it is a variant of concern, it's been labelled as such by the World Health Organization on Friday night. So we're still in that gathering information phase, but on what basis are they calling for that concern? I think the first thing, it's quite a different virus in terms of its make-up from other variations of the SARS CoV-2 virus, but it is still that same virus, that's an important consideration, and we have been living with that now for a couple of years. We know a lot about the virus and how to combat it. So that's the main reason why they're concerned it is different. Then there are three areas that people are most interested in. Does it transmit between people and how infectious is it? The second one is severity; is it more or less severe than other variations? And the third one; are the vaccines and treatments that are being developed still effective against this virus? So I'd go through each of those.

In terms of transmissibility, yes, it does transmit between people, it's likely it's been transmitting in southern Africa for up to a month or two now, and that's becoming the dominant virus in South Africa. How transmissible is it? Is it more transmissible than Delta, for example? We don't know yet. That's one of the things- one of the key issues we need more information about. Is it more severe? Conflicting reports there. In South Africa, they have seen a rise in hospitalisations, but that could be- there could be other reasons for that. What we know from the two cases here in Australia: asymptomatic, no symptoms at all. That's the same in the two cases we know of in Hong Kong and we'll get more and more information about that as there are more cases appearing in Europe, for example. Small numbers at the moment. So we don't know that yet. It's another thing we need to find out. The third and crucial one is about the vaccines. There is no clear evidence so far that the vaccines are less effective against this variation than any of the others. It's early days. We don't have any clinical or laboratory evidence yet one way or the other and that's one of the really crucial points that we want to get over the coming days and weeks.

BEAU RYAN:                         

Paul, should we be slamming shut our international borders to try to contain this thing early?

PAUL KELLY:                         

Well, we made decisions very quickly on Saturday. I advised the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, and we worked through that. And Minister Hunt and I announced that on Saturday and that's all in place now. So there are limitations on those nine southern African countries which is very similar to most other countries in the world, what they have done really closely aligning it with where the risk is. We'll keep looking at the risk in other countries and make that balanced approach. But any of these decisions have pros and cons and it's a matter for Government to really take into account both the medical evidence and the medical advice which I give on a daily basis, as well as other issues as we go forward. Those key questions I mentioned are really what's going to guide that. If it was a less severe illness, for example, we wouldn't need to worry so much about it. If the vaccine is definitely proven to continue to work, again, we're a very highly vaccinated population, one of the highest in the world now and the booster program is really ramping up as well. So these matters are something we will continue to discuss and bring that evidence to the table.

TRISTAN MACMANUS:       

Professor, are you comfortable with the safety protocols that are in place currently or is there further safety protocols you'd like to see put in place?

PAUL KELLY:                         

Sorry, could you just clarify what you mean there?

TRISTAN MACMANUS:       

Are there further safety protocols that you would like to see set in place?

PAUL KELLY:                         

At the border are you meaning? I'm sorry, I'm not sure what you mean by safety protocols.

SARAH HARRIS:                   

Hotel quarantine, I suppose, is something that's been floated for people coming back as well, what are your views on that?

PAUL KELLY:                         

Right, yes, yes, so the settings at the border at the moment, we tightened up the way that we are getting the information from people arriving and making sure that anyone who's been in those southern African countries in the last 14 days, well, firstly if they're not Australian citizens, permanent residents, or close family, they are now banned from coming, that came into place on Saturday night. For Australian permanent residents, et cetera, they can come, but they will be subject to 14 days of quarantine. And then in New South Wales and Victoria and also the ACT, for these few days, they have asked everyone to go into isolation and get a test. That will be considered over the- over the coming days as to whether that's appropriate.

The Prime Minister announced this morning that he's calling an emergency session of the National Cabinet either today or tomorrow to discuss those matters. I'm in very close contact with my colleagues in the states through the Australian Health Protection Committee. We're meeting every day to discuss those- that risk and balanced approach and that's the important thing. It's not just the virus, it's other matters that we need to take into account.

SARAH HARRIS:                   

So Christmas isn't cancelled just yet, Professor, then?

PAUL KELLY:                         

No, no, Christmas is definitely not cancelled.

SARAH HARRIS:                   

Okay. Alright.

PAUL KELLY:                         

Santa has a special exemption as he did last year.

SARAH HARRIS:                   

Fantastic. Good.

PAUL KEELY:                         

And so that will still go ahead.

SARAH HARRIS:                   

Alright. You've made lots of little people very, very happy. Professor Paul Kelly, we appreciate your time this morning. Thank you for chatting.

PAUL KELLY:                         

You're welcome.

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