Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly – COVID-19 Omicron update

An update from Australia's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, about the new Omicron variant of concern.


Good morning, everyone. Paul Kelly here in Canberra. It is great to have my interpreter here, Ramas. Welcome Ramas, good to have you here. I'm giving an update on what we know, what we don't know and what we are finding out about this new variant, Omicron. A new type of the SARS-CoV-2 virus which causes COVID-19. The first thing I would say is that this is not a new virus, it is a new variant of a well-known virus. There are some questions I will come to shortly from you to make sure I cover off on those but the first thing I would like to say is we are pausing on our reopening schedule for two weeks. This will allow us and is already allowing us to gain a lot more information about this new variant so we can go forward. But very clearly, I need to say that we will have this variant in Australia. In fact, we already have seven cases that have been diagnosed, two of those have been in the community. We are finding over the last week the virus that emerged from southern Africa has spread to many other countries in the world and so this is inevitable we will have this virus in Australia, but that is not necessarily a bad thing and I will go into those matters shortly, it relates to your questions that have come through. Firstly, is omicron deadlier than other forms of COVID-19? We have no information at this stage that that is the case. In fact, the opposite may well be true. Of the over 300 cases that have now been diagnosed in many countries, they have all been very mild or in fact have no symptoms at all. So, this is something we are watching very closely. Most of the cases so far outside of South Africa have been in young, fit travellers, so that is an open question. We have not seen an increase in deaths in South Africa where most of the omicron cases have emerged but we are watching that and in fact I have a meeting with South African colleagues this afternoon to talk trough that exact issue. It is one of those unknowns, but certainly something we are really looking closely to solve that question. The second question from you is, do the current vaccines work? Again, we don't have absolute information on that so far, and I would stress this. We have no information either from the laboratory or clinical studies or from population studies that the vaccines do not work. I am a glass half full man; I will assume for now that they do work, and we will certainly have more information about that over the coming days and weeks. What we do know is that many of the cases that have been diagnosed in many countries around the world from travellers, almost exclusively from southern Africa, have been doubly vaccinated. Again, they have not had severe disease, so we need to wait and watch and gather more information. Another question that has come through on the socials is should we go back to wearing masks? In those places and in those jurisdictions that still require masks to be used, for example in public transport, in high risks settings like aged care and healthcare and so forth, yes, you definitely should be using masks in those situations. It is in fact the law that you would do that. For those of you in places where masks are not mandated, you have a choice in that. We have no shortage of masks in Australia, we've gotten used to wearing masks in places in indoor settings. If you feel safer wearing a mask, please do so. It does work to stop the virus spreading. Will Australia close its international borders again and will people coming from those countries need to quarantine for two weeks? That is not the case except the people arriving from southern Africa at the moment. But we are constantly looking at that question and will provide information to government as we have more information. At the moment, very clearly, the National Cabinet made a decision that we will continue to work forward, and it is only related to those high-risk settings for the time being. Will more lockdowns does be necessary for Omicron? I really hope not. That is certainly not the plan and we are looking to see what we need to do to keep Australia safe but also to keep on our reopening agenda. I think I am out of time now. Thank you so much for listening and we will be having regular updates over the next few days and right through while we get to know more about this virus. Thank you.

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