AVANI DIAS: Let's talk till one of the government's top medical advisors, Dr Steph Davis. She's the Deputy Chief Medical Officer. Thanks for coming on Hack.
STEPH DAVIS: No worries. It's lovely to be here, Avani.
AVANI DIAS: So the WHO is telling governments overnight to basically reassess their COVID plans. Also, just keep on their toes with this new variant. How is Australia doing that?
STEPH DAVIS: This new variant, Omicron variant, we first knew about two weeks ago now. It's seems like a lot longer than that, but it is, in fact, two weeks. So there's been a lot of action in Australia since that time. So there's been a lot of- AHPPC, the Australian Health Protection Principles Committee has met daily since that time to discuss the potential risk. And there's a lot of people keeping an eye on what the situation is that the Omicron variant in relation to its ability to evade the vaccine, in relation to its transmissibility, in relation to its severity. I mean, as you know, the government immediately brought in some border measures around trying to reduce the risk importation of the variant. And there's also all the ongoing stuff we've been doing around COVID safe behaviours and increasing the vaccine uptake as part of that. But there's certainly a lot of work, a lot of attention being paid to this.
AVANI DIAS: I'm flashing back to this time last year, when we thought we were going to have a relatively normal summer, and then outbreaks started popping off all over the country. This year, we're obviously largely vaccinated, which is amazing. But do you see summer plans being ruined because of Omicron?
STEPH DAVIS: I wouldn't go as far to say that summer plans are being ruined, absolutely not. I think the thing is we've got to accept that COVID has been with us a long time, and it's probably going to be with us for a while longer. So what we've just got to keep doing is maintaining all the COVID safe behaviours we've been doing for as long as we can remember pretty much now. You mentioned vaccination, and I think this is something that we really need to remember. We have amazing vaccination rates in this country. We have, overall, for the entire country, we have- 88 per cent of people have had two doses. That is fantastic, and it puts us right up there in the world in terms of vaccination coverage. And it's still increasing. And now we're also rolling out the booster program, so people are getting even more protection. So that is our absolutely best defence against COVID generally.
AVANI DIAS: Obviously, we can do a lot on an individual level. But what about in terms of those booster shots? Because today we've also heard this news that with Omicron, the two vaccines shots may not be enough in terms of a defence, and the recommendation is to get that third booster shot. Are we rolling those out fast enough with that sort of six-month gap since your second dose?
STEPH DAVIS: Yeah. And as you say as well, there's this emerging evidence around the fact that three shots might be more effective than two shots against both the Delta variant. Oh, look, there will be continual review of evidence around what the best interval is. And I know it's, you know, what people really want to hear is certainty, but we're in a really moving space. This area has only just emerged. If there are changes to the booster schedule, they'll be announced as soon as they're available. At the moment, we're still recommending six months, but noting that that evidence could change over time.
AVANI DIAS: Alright. Young people were obviously last on the list, largely, when it came to getting the vaccine. Are they going to be the most exposed to Omicron considering this emerging evidence about needing that booster shot?
STEPH DAVIS: First of all, we need to remember that the evidence at the moment about Omicron is that it seems to be a relatively mild disease. That's what we're seeing so far. And I don't want to oversell this, because it is early days, and I certainly don't want to be complacent. We absolutely need to take this seriously. But the majority of cases so far- and the majority of cases have been in younger people, both in South Africa and in other places. It's not really quite clear why that is, but the majority of those cases have been mild. The other thing is, in terms of them being last in the list for boosters, you're right, that's because they were last on the list. But they were, generally - the vaccine rollout started with those at highest risk of severe disease, and COVID in most younger people, is a mild disease. Now the good news is, if you are last in the list for a booster, that means you finished your vaccine course most recently. And we know that the protection from the vaccine drops over time. So even though you might, saying you're not eligible for your booster until later, you've actually probably still got higher levels of immunity at the moment than someone who got their vaccine more months before you.
AVANI DIAS: One thing that people are looking forward to this summer is international travel, seeing borders open. Would you travel overseas at this point with Omicron around?
STEPH DAVIS: I think, again, this is a really fast moving space. There's a lot of people looking at this. And my advice to anyone will be go on the DFAT site and look at the travel advice around what's going on in the country and the destination where you're attending to go.
AVANI DIAS: Despite that safety, as you say, some people would be wanting to have those reunions after several years? And do you see things like hotel quarantine coming back because of Omicron making it harder for people to come back into the country if they do head overseas? You know, we saw so many instances of people being stuck and so on, and people are obviously worried about that. Do you see those rules around travel internationally changing as this sort of variant and the more evidence about it grows?
STEPH DAVIS: It's a really, really tricky space. I would love to have a crystal ball to be able to answer those kind of questions. At the moment, we just don't know, I think, is what it comes down to. Like I said, the evidence seem to be that Omicron is not as- it's seems to be relatively mild disease in people. That's really reassuring. But it also seems to be incredibly transmissible, so very easily spread between people. And it also seems to show some level of vaccine escape. Again, we don't know how significant that is in terms of preventing severe disease.
AVANI DIAS: Alright, Dr Steph Davis, appreciate you chatting to us on Hack.
STEPH DAVIS: Look, thanks so much for your time.