COVID-19 – Omicron update from CMO Professor Paul Kelly

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

12:16

Good afternoon everyone. It's Paul Kelly here in Canberra, the Chief Medical Officer. Just giving an update about this new variant we have been hearing a lot about in the last few days. It has been labelled by the World Health Organization as Omicron. That's one of the letters of the Greek alphabet. We have become familiar with these variants of concern. This is the 12th or 13th of these variants of concern. I know that because of the Greek alphabetic symbol that has been added to it. What do we know about this virus? We know that it has many similarities with previous variants of the COVID-19 virus, so for SARS-CoV-2. It is not a new virus, but it does have quite a lot of changes in the genomic sequence of this virus. That is the main reason why it has been called a variant of concern. It appears to have risen from Southern Africa and is now circulating quite widely within South Africa, as well as probably in some of the surrounding countries in that region.

We know that we need to study this virus very carefully, and to understand what we need to know about this virus and what we need to do if that virus was to come to Australia. I will point out at the moment, there have been no definite cases diagnosed in Australia. Although there are some cases that are under investigation that arrived last week into quarantine in the Northern Territory, as well as last night into quarantine in Sydney. What do we know about this virus so far? We know that it is different from previous versions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in its genetic make-up. We know that it is transmissible, it does move from person to person and seems to be quite infectious, at least in the South African context. We know that it is, it is this new virus, but there are many things we don't know yet about this virus. Firstly, does it give a more severe illness?

 At this stage there is conflicting reports about that, in South Africa and elsewhere. The most recent information from the South African ministry for health is that it is mainly causing mild illness in that country. What do we know about the effect of vaccines or indeed treatments that we now have as part of our armament against this particular virus. At the moment we don't really have any real-world or even laboratory evidence about that element. What do we know about other clinical elements in relation to this virus? These are things that are only emerging right now. So, there is a lot of information that we are gathering and have gathered a lot of information in the last 48 hours, as this has come to light.

We are very much, as always, looking and being in touch with our international colleagues and with experts in the fields of virology, epidemiology, public health, clinical medicine and vaccines. These are really important elements that we have built up over the last two years to cope with this pandemic. We have seen the emergence of this virus and the Australian Government has taken very quick and decisive steps in consultation with the states and territories, to make sure that our border controls are appropriate at the moment. Yesterday, with the Minister for Health, the honourable Greg Hunt, I did talk about some of those changes that are now in place. Firstly, under the changes, anyone who is not a citizen or permanent resident of Australia or their immediate family, including parents, who has been in certain African countries in the past 14 days, will not be able to enter Australia. That is now in existence in law and that is already happening as of last night. Currently those countries are South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique. It is quite possible that other countries may be added to that list, but they are currently the countries we have most concern about.

Anyone who is not a citizen or permanent resident of Australia or their immediate family will be banned now from coming back to Australia, at least for the time being. For Australian citizens, permanent residents, their immediate family members including parents arriving from those countries or having been in those countries in the last 14 days will need to go into immediate supervised quarantine for 14 days, subject to jurisdictional arrangements. This is stepping back for example in NSW, Victoria, and the ACT, to our previous settings. In other cities and states and the Northern Territory, there is no change there. Anyone who has already arrived into Australia in the last 14 days and has been in any of those countries, we are really calling out now, please make sure that you get in touch with your local public health authority and come forward for testing. It is very important that we get a strong and important surveillance of what has happened in Australia right now in relation to this particular variant. The other thing that we have done over the last 24 hours, is to suspend all flights from those nine Southern African countries for the period of 14 days, and that is again a matter of precaution. There are no scheduled flights at the moment coming to Australia from any of those countries, and indeed many of the hub areas where people might fly through, for example Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates, have actually put similar restrictions on flights from those countries as indeed many countries in Europe and the UK have done so.

I really want to stress that these are precautionary actions, and it gives us time to actually learn more about this variant and to consider how much concern we should have in relation to that. I think one thing that is really important, and this really stresses why we have been giving this message for many months now about vaccination. At this stage, we have no evidence that the vaccine would not work perfectly well against this virus. Vaccine remains one of our, if not our most important mitigation measure against this variant as well as the other SARS-CoV-2 viruses that cause COVID-19. I would say very strongly, to anyone who has not yet been vaccinated, please make that appointment today. Go and get your first vaccine. If you are due for your second vaccine, get your second vaccine. If you are due for a booster, if you have had your primary course of vaccination six or more months ago, please make sure that you make that appointment and go and get that booster shot. We have plenty of vaccine available right across Australia, in many places, pharmacies, GPs, other clinics, state-run clinics, all the places we know, they are there and ready. Get vaccinated, this will be very important.

We also know that this variant is still a respiratory virus and we have learnt very much over the last two years how important those standard cough hygiene measures, hand washing measures, mask wearing measures, all of those things are very helpful and important to stop the spread of the virus of this nature. Those things are still the same for this particular variant. That same message about if you have any of those symptoms of COVID, and we all know what they are now. If you get that, make sure you stay at home. Do not mix with others and get tested. The testing we have in Australia will pick up this variant the same as we've seen with the other variants of the SARS-CoV-2 over the last couple of years. We will continue to give updates like this throughout the coming weeks as we learn more about this virus and if there is more information that we should share with the Australian people. Please look at those official websites.

You know the one here in the Commonwealth, health.gov.au, there are similar official sites in each of the states and territories. I am continuing to work very closely with my Chief Health Officer colleagues in the states and territories through the AHPPC mechanism and we will be meeting every day over the coming week at least. To make sure we are totally on top of all of the information that is coming from other parts of the world in relation to this virus. We will be updating the Australian public as time goes by. Please be assured that we will be making a response, based on evidence, based on science as is necessary to deal with this variant of concern. We know there is challenges ahead, there has been challenges all the way through this pandemic and this is just another one of those. We need to continue to work together, we need to continue to be getting vaccinated.

We need to continue those COVIDSafe messages and make sure the behaviours are continuing, and to listen to our public health authorities. So that we have the information of what is happening in Australia, to be able to pass that back to everyone in Australia for the best outcome from this pandemic. So, in summary, this is a new element. We have become somewhat used to these changes over time, all the way through the last two years. It's just another one of those. We are looking very carefully and closely at what is happening internationally. We are redoubling our efforts both at the border and within Australia to make sure we have all of the information that we need to make the right decisions at the right time, to protect the health of Australians. That is our job, we take it seriously, we do it tirelessly, and together, we will get through this. Thanks very much.

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