The Omicron variant of COVID-19 is on track to infect more than half of Europeans but policymakers must not dismiss it as being a flu-like endemic illness, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says.
That warning will no doubt catch the attention of local health experts who are watching the situation in Europe and the US closely as they make predictions about how Australians could be impacted in coming months.
But will leaders listen? And will they act?
Epidemiologists are speaking up about how they feel their previous warnings have been dismissed.
They are dismayed by scenes of empty supermarket shelves and stories of Australians desperate to get their hands on rapid antigen tests – or even get their PCR test results – so they can get back to work or reunite with loved ones.
Urgent health meetings will continue on Wednesday as leaders discuss which business sectors could have COVID-isolation rules relaxed after rapidly rising virus numbers led to widespread supply chain issues.
The latest expert to reveal they warned the Morrison government Australia must have more rapid antigen tests for systems to cope is Dr Henning Liljeqvist.
The public health specialist told ABC’s 7.30 program on Tuesday night that he, infectious diseases expert Professor Mary-Louise McLaws and Pathology Technology Australia chief executive Dean Whiting gave an hour-long presentation to the Parliamentary Friends of Medicine group on August 25 last year.
“Not only could [RAT supply issues] be predicted, it was predicted,” Dr Liljeqvist said.
“I’m pretty confused because all we could see was a head-in-the-sand approach from government.”
More details on that and WHO’s warning, below.
Meanwhile, some parents have been left frustrated and worried about the level of risk to their children amid reports of struggles to find a spot for primary school-aged kids to be vaccinated.
Health authorities have said there was enough supply of the vaccine to ensure all of the 2.3 million children in the five to 11-year-old demographic were able to get a vaccine before the start of school.
More than 35,000 kids received a first dose on day one on Monday.
Latest figures show 3.8 million adults are now protected by a third dose, with 215,000 turning out daily for booster shots.
Health authorities are currently reviewing whether to expand the eligibility of booster shots to 16 and 17-year-olds.
More than 90,000 COVID-19 cases were reported nationally on Tuesday.
In NSW there were 25,870 new cases along with 11 deaths, while Victoria registered 37,994 cases and 13 deaths.
A new fatality was recorded in Queensland, as the state notched up 20,566 cases, with Tasmania announcing 1379 new infections.
There was one new death in the ACT, with a record 1508 infections in the national capital, while there were 2921 cases in South Australia and 594 in the Northern Territory.
Here’s the latest on Wednesday morning.
WHO’s warning to Europe – and the world
Europe has registered more than seven million newly-reported cases in the first week of 2022, more than doubling over a two-week period, WHO’s Europe director Hans Kluge told a news briefing.
“At this rate, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation forecasts that more than 50 per cent of the population in the region will be infected with Omicron in the next 6-8 weeks,” Mr Kluge said, referring to a research centre at the University of Washington in the US.
Fifty out of 53 countries in Europe and central Asia have logged cases of the more infectious variant, Mr Kluge said.
Evidence, however, is emerging that Omicron is affecting the upper respiratory tract more than the lungs, causing milder symptoms than previous variants.
But the WHO has cautioned more studies are still needed to prove this.
On Monday, Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said it may be time to change how it tracks COVID-19’s evolution to instead use a method similar to flu because its lethality has fallen.
That would imply treating the virus as an endemic illness, rather than a pandemic, without recording every case and without testing all people presenting symptoms.
But that is “a way off,” WHO’s senior emergency officer for Europe Catherine Smallwood said at the briefing, adding that endemicity requires a stable and predictable transmission.
“We still have a huge amount of uncertainty and a virus that is evolving quite quickly, imposing new challenges. We are certainly not at the point where we are able to call it endemic,” Dr Smallwood said.
“It may become endemic in due course but pinning that down to 2022 is a little bit difficult at this stage.”
More evidence government was warned about RATs
ABC’s 7.30 reports its researchers have information that several Morrison government and Labor MPs attended a presentation given to the Parliamentary Friends of Medicine group when doctors warned Australia’s PCR testing would not be able to cope.
Dr Liljeqvist said he warned members of government Australia should quickly shift to rapid testing.
That presentation was in August 2021.
By then, take-home tests had been approved in the US and UK for almost a year.
Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) did not approve the sale of RAT tests for home use until November 1 2021.
The Australian Financial Review reports that the peak body for diagnostic testing, the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia, cautioned against the use of at-home tests, releasing five statements including one as recently as December.
Health Minister Greg Hunt was not at the presentation from Dr Liljeqvist, Professor McLaws and Mr Whiting.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Mr Hunt said the minister supported a range of testing, but pointed out that RATs are not as effective as PCR testing.
The spokesperson raised the issue of some products being recalled in the US and said the government hoped “neither the Opposition nor 7.30 Report are advocating for lower safety standards to allow diagnostic tests that have been recalled by other countries”, adding “that is utterly unacceptable and irresponsible”.
“The government has been an early adopter of RATs and has been purchasing RATs since August 2020, which have been distributed to residential aged care facilities (RACF) across the country through the national medical stockpile,” the statement read.
“While RATs are a quick and efficient way of testing for COVID-19, they are not as effective as PCR testing.
“The combination of having self-tests, point-of-care tests and PCR tests available is the most effective.”
Labor MP Mike Freelander, who co-chairs the Parliamentary Friends of Medicine group, said the government and the Department of Health were too slow to take up RATs.
“Both the government and the Department of Health have been too focused on the negatives, rather than the positives and enormous benefits, that rapid antigen testing offers,” Dr Freelander told the ABC.
Isolation talks amid food and supply shortages
Talks between federal ministers and industry took place overnight and will pick up again on Wednesday to help address coronavirus-induced staff shortages.
Supply chains of essential services have been severely impacted by the outbreak, with thousands of people isolating after having contracted the virus or being designated a close contact.
The supply issues have forced some major food retailers to enforce product limits on several items.
Small Business Minister Anne Ruston is reportedly speaking with industry groups.
The talks come after the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee released preliminary advice on Monday for grocery supply workers, which would allow them to come out of isolation and back to work if they test negative after being a close contact.
The advice will be presented to national cabinet when it next meets on Thursday.
Work is also under way to expand the advice to other essential sectors such as medical suppliers, aviation, childcare and education.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is set to meet with the National Coordinating Mechanism and ministers to discuss possible changes to the AHPPC advice.
Among the changes are that essential services should ensure workers receive a COVID-19 booster shot.
Staff in essential services would be able to continue to work after an exposure provided they have a negative rapid test, with regular rapid testing afterwards.
The exact timing of how often the rapid testing would need to be undertaken for employees is yet to be determined.