'Headed to a bad place': Dire warning for Australia as Covid variant spreads

Epidemiologists are demanding drastic action be taken until more is known about a new highly-infectious and potentially dangerous coronavirus variant spreading from South Africa.

The highly mutated strain, known as B.1.1.529, was dubbed Omicron by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on Friday amid growing global alarm — joining the prevalent and deadly Delta variant under the same Greek Alphabet naming system.

The organisation has warned the new variant, which was first discovered in South Africa earlier this month, may be 500 per cent more infectious than other forms of Covid-19, with early evidence suggesting it poses a much higher risk of reinfection.

Omicron has now been seen in travellers from southern Africa to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel, with WHO describing it as being "of concern".

A hospital worker walks amongst patients with COVID-19 in the COVID-19 ward at Khayelitsha Hospital, about 35km from the centre of Cape Town, on December 29, 2020. Source: Getty Images
The new variant, dubbed Omicron by the World Health Organisation, was first detected in South Africa. Source: Getty Images

Dire warning for Australia

Australian epidemiologist, Dr Zoë Hyde, from the University of Western Australia, has called for an “urgent rethink” of the country's international borders.

“We can’t rely on travel bans to keep it out,” she warned in a Tweet on Saturday.

“If we don’t bring back a centralised quarantine system, we’re likely headed to a bad place.”

Other epidemiologists have said they fear it may be too late for countries to try and shut out the new variant.

"Most likely this virus is already in other places," Professor Ben Cowling with the University of Hong Kong said.

"And so if we shut the door now, it's going to be probably too late."

New variant triggers travel bans

The world is racing to contain the emerging threat, with countries closing borders and suspending travel.

A senior official for US President Joe Biden has announced the US will restrict travel from South Africa and neighbouring countries from Monday.

Meanwhile, Canada will close its borders to those countries with Britain, the European Union banning flights.

India, Japan, Israel, Turkey, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates are among several other countries which have also tightened travel rules.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters on Friday the new variant would not mean an immediate change to Australia's reopening plan, but the response would be swift should advice change.

“It means that we’re well prepared. We are able to act quickly if there is advice,” he said.

Minister for Health Greg Hunt at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Thursday, September 2, 2021. Source: AAP
Minister for Health Greg Hunt believes Australia is well-prepared to handle new Covid variants. Source: AAP

Vaccine makers react to new threat

Scientists are scrambling to understand Omicron's mutations and whether existing vaccines are effective against it as its spike proteins differ dramatically to the original coronavirus strain.

Vaccine maker BioNTech is hoping to have more data within two weeks to determine whether it's jab produced with partner Pfizer will be effective against the new variant.

Pfizer and BioNTech said a reworked vaccine would be ready to be shipped in around 100 days, if necessary.

Doctor or nurse in a laboratory preparing a vaccine for a patient. Source: Getty Images
Vaccine makers are waiting for data on the new Covid strain to be available. Source: Getty Images

"We understand the concern of experts and have immediately initiated investigations on variant B.1.1.529," BioNTech said in a statement.

"We expect more data from the laboratory tests in two weeks at the latest. These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally."

Moderna is also working to tailor a booster candidate to the emerging variant.

With Reuters and AAP

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