Australia has paused its border reopening to skilled workers, international students and other visa holders at the eleventh hour as the Federal Government awaits more information on the new Omicron variant.
The first flights had been due to land on Wednesday but will now be postponed until December 15 as the world scrambles to uncover the secrets of the mutated variant.
The decision was announced late Monday ahead of National Cabinet meeting on Tuesday to discuss quarantine measures as countries reacted strongly by enforcing new travel bans and isolation rules.
In other developments overnight, the UK has halved the gap to getting a booster shot from six months to three months while US President Joe Biden said Omicron should be cause for concern but not panic.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned the new variant posed a “very high” global risk of infection surges that could have “severe consequences” in some areas.
However a top South African infectious disease expert says existing COVID-19 vaccines are probably effective at preventing severe disease and hospitalisation from Omicron.
Here’s the latest on Omicron from overnight.
Australia’s border pause
The reopening of the border to skilled workers, international students and other visa holders will be pushed back to December 15.
“The temporary pause will ensure Australia can gather the information we need to better understand the Omicron variant, including the efficacy of the vaccine, the range of illness, including if it may generate more mild symptoms, and the level of transmission,” a statement from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office said late on Monday.
“The reopening to travellers from Japan and the Republic of Korea will also be paused until 15 December.”
So far five cases of Omicron have been detected in Australia — four who landed in Sydney and one in NT quarantine.
Federal, state and territory leaders will meet on Tuesday afternoon to decide on quarantine arrangements after Victoria, NSW and the ACT installed a 72-hour quarantine requirement for all international travellers.
Victoria has introduced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for close contacts of Omicron cases regardless of their vaccination status. coordinate Australia’s response to Omicron.
The Federal Government is also considering whether to bring forward booster shots.
WHO: ‘Very high’ global risk
The Omicron coronavirus variant is likely to spread internationally, posing a “very high” global risk of infection surges that could have “severe consequences” in some areas, says the WHO.
The UN agency has urged its 194 member states to accelerate vaccination of high-priority groups and, in anticipation of increased case numbers, to “ensure mitigation plans are in place” to maintain essential health services.
“Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” the WHO said.
“The overall global risk related to the new variant … is assessed as very high.”
To date, no deaths linked to Omicron had been reported, though further research was needed to assess Omicron’s potential to escape protection against immunity induced by vaccines and previous infections, it said.
No cause for panic: Biden
US President Joe Biden says the message for dealing with Omicron hasn’t changed — get vaccinated.
Speaking overnight, Mr Biden said the variant was a cause for concern but not panic.
“We have the best vaccine in the world, the best medicines, the best scientists, and we’re learning more every single day,” he said.
“We’ll fight this variant with scientific and knowledgeable actions and speed, not chaos and confusion.”
“I know you’re tired of hearing me say this, the best protection against this new variant or any of the variants out there, the ones we’ve been dealing with already, is getting fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot,” he said.
“In the event, hopefully unlikely, that updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to this new variant, we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool,” he said.
Vaccines ‘likely’ prevent severe Omicron
A top South African infectious disease expert says existing COVID-19 vaccines are probably effective at preventing severe disease and hospitalisation from Omicron.
Salim Abdool Karim, who served as the government’s chief adviser during the initial response to the pandemic, also said it was too early to say whether Omicron led to more severe clinical symptoms than previous variants.
However, it did appear more transmissable and more likely to infect people with immunity from vaccination or prior infection.
“Based on what we know and how the other variants of concern have reacted to vaccine immunity, we can expect that we will still see high effectiveness for hospitalisation and severe disease, and that that protection of the vaccines is likely to remain strong,” said Professor Abdool Karim.
However Abdool Karim, a professor at South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal and Columbia University in the United States, said it was too early to draw firm conclusions, because doctors can only comment on patients who they treat.
“In terms of clinical presentation, there’s not enough data yet,” he said.
Meanwhile, the South African doctor who alerted authorities to Omicron warned the rest of the world wasn’t safe until Africa was vaccinated.
“As long as we don’t help and assist Africa no one will sleep well at night, not even Australia, North America and not Europe,” Angelique Coetzee told ABC radio.