Australia’s COVID booster vaccine program may be shaken up, as concerns mount about the spread of the new Omicron variant of the virus.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation had been asked to review the booster program as more cases of the variant emerged around the world, including in Sydney.
“We’re prepared with supplies. We are already one of the earliest nations in the world, after Israel, to have a whole-of-nation booster program. If they recommend changes, we will follow those changes,” he said on Monday.
There have been 415,000 booster shots given nationwide. Mr Hunt said that was an “extraordinary turnout”, with about 500,000 Australians so far eligible for boosters, at the six-month mark from their second dose.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also called an urgent meeting of the national security committee for Monday to review evidence and actions in relation to the variant, which was first detected in South Africa late last week.
The committee will look at whether to continue with plans to reopen Australia’s borders to double-dosed visa holders, skilled workers and international students from Wednesday as scheduled.
Mr Hunt said the PM would also convene a meeting of national cabinet “within the next 48 hours to work on ensuring that there’s common understanding, common information, and common actions amongst all of the jurisdictions”.
NSW Health confirmed on Monday it was conducting urgent genomic sequencing to determine if two people who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa on Sunday night have the variant.
Both have tested positive for COVID-19 and are in quarantine. Their genomic sequencing results expected on Monday night.
They are in addition to two people who arrived in NSW from southern Africa on Saturday night, who have already tested positive for the Omicron variant and are in special health accommodation.
Victorian health authorities have also interviewed a case from NSW who travelled to Victoria while infectious and asymptomatic.
They are awaiting genomic testing in in that case.
On Monday, Mr Morrison urged calm.
“There’s no evidence to suggest that this leads to any more severe disease,” he told the Nine Network.
“If anything, it’s suggesting a lesser form of disease, particularly for those who are vaccinated.
“Case numbers of themselves are not the issue. It’s about whether people are getting a worse illness or it’s going to put stress on your hospital system.”
Victoria, NSW and the ACT have introduced a blanket 72-hour quarantine requirement for all international travellers.
New arrivals from nine southern African countries that Australia has shut its border to must quarantine for 14 days.
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly said authorities were looking closely at what Omicron meant for viral transmission and the efficacy of vaccines.
“The information from South Africa is that it has replaced Delta as the major, possibly the only, virus circulating in that country, quite quickly. So, it is transmitting, at least as well as Delta. That seems clear,” he said.
“Does it lead to more severe illness? Now, we don’t know that.”
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud urged people not to panic, because new variants were inevitable.
“We are going to have to open up and we’re going to have to learn to live with this and the variants that will come,” he told the Nine Network.
“We can’t panic. We need to work through this with science, not emotion.”
The South African doctor who alerted authorities to the new variant emphasised the strain did not appear to cause severe illness.
A man in his 30s came to see Angelique Coetzee suffering from fatigue, body aches and pain before he and his family tested positive.
“None of them were extremely sick,” Dr Coetzee said.
Labor’s NDIS spokesman Bill Shorten said the Omicron strain highlighted the need for an effective quarantine system.
“I don’t think that 72 hours is enough. And if we don’t want to have more severe restrictions, then quarantine is our frontline of defence,” he told ABC TV.
Victoria on Monday reported 1007 COVID cases and three more deaths, while there were 150 additional infections in NSW.
There were seven in the ACT on Sunday and four in the Northern Territory where the remote community of Lajamanu is in lockdown until December 11.
Nearly 87 per cent of Australians aged 16 and older are fully vaccinated.