'More transmissible' Covid variant arrives in Australia

A new Covid-19 variant spreading overseas has been detected in Australia for the first time.

The variant, dubbed Omicron XE, is a "recombinant" variant, which has emerged as a combination of Omicron BA.1 and BA.2.

It first emerged in the UK at the start of the year, arriving in NSW this week from an overseas traveller, while it also spread to other countries including Japan in recent weeks.

Research from the UK Health Security Agency last month shows the variant is more transmissible than BA.2.

Masked women travel down an escalator during the Covid pandemic.
Another Covid variant has arrived in Australia, which authorities are monitoring. Source: Getty

“Early-day estimates indicate a community growth rate advantage of 10 per cent as compared to BA.2," the World Health Organisation said initially, but further research out of the UK suggests it could be as high as 20.9 per cent more transmissible than BA.2.

However Australia's vaccinated residents should not see their protection compromised with the variant, the University of Queensland's infectious diseases expert Professor Paul Griffin explained for The Conversation.

"Our immune response that helps to protect against Covid-19 is generated by vaccination or from previous infection, and it mostly targets the spike protein. Given XE basically has the same spike protein as BA.2, it doesn’t appear our protection against XE will be significantly reduced," he said.

Experts say it is too early to say whether it can cause more severe illness, however initial indications suggest it does not.

Prof Griffin stressed the variant must be monitored, with Mark Cameron, associate professor in the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University, telling CNBC the risk of more serious variants emerging remains.

"The virus is still capable of evolving, recombining and developing a new branch of its family tree," he said.

Australia has relaxed its entry requirements meaning inbound travellers will not need to take a Covid-19 test prior to arriving into the country.

Prof Griffin says it is vital for as much of the world to be vaccinated to reduce the possibility of new variants.

Australia is routinely recording more than 40,000 new Covid-19 cases a day, however the official number of cases is believed to be higher due to a decline in testing.

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