Epidemiologists on edge over the highly mutated Omicron strain are urging authorities to “move early and fast” while debating if border closures will be enough to halt it in its tracks.
Professor Nick Talley, Editor of the Medical Journal of Australia, is among the experts who have issued a dire warning about the new variant of concern.
“Omicron. High concern. Data awaited. But ignore what we know now at our peril,” he tweeted just hours before the federal government announced major changes to travel and quarantine arrangements.
“The precautionary principle applies in a pandemic. Move early and fast in terms of the public health response. Much easier to reverse any measures.”
Health Minister Greg Hunt outlined five additional precautionary measures on Saturday including introducing a period of time in quarantine for Australians who have travelled to South Africa, where the variant was first detected.
But there are fears the variant could already be in Australia after a traveller from South Africa tested positive for Covid-19 in the Northern Territory on Friday.
Omicron. High concern. Data awaited. But ignore what we know now at our peril. The precautionary principle applies in a pandemic. Move early and fast in terms of the public health response. Much easier to reverse any measures. So far Australia hasn’t moved. https://t.co/MSn6PucmDq
— MJA Editor in Chief (@MJA_Editor) November 26, 2021
The tighter border controls come after the US confirmed it will restrict travel from South Africa and neighbouring countries from Monday.
Europe, Britain, Canada and a host of other countries have also closed their borders to non-residents arriving from those countries.
Heated debate over travel bans
As the world races to contain the emerging threat, questions are being raised over whether flight bans and other travel restrictions will be enough to stop the spread.
“The most worrying thing about the new strain at the moment is how little we know about it,” Craig Erlam, senior market analyst for the currency trading firm OANDA, said.
Some say these moves will buy some much-needed time to implement stronger measures.
“Travel restrictions can delay but not prevent the spread of a highly transmissible variant,” Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh, said.
While others argue it will give a false sense of security.
"And so if we shut the door now, it's going to be probably too late,” Professor Ben Cowling with the University of Hong Kong said.
However, some have a more optimistic outlook.
Jeffrey Barrett, director of Covid-19 Genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, believes the early detection of the new variant gives the world a better chance compared to when the Delta strain emerged.
“The surveillance is so good in South Africa and other nearby countries that they found this (new variant), understood it was a problem and told the world very fast about it,” he said.
“We may be at an earlier point with this new variant so there may still be time to do something about it.”
The World Health organisation said the new variant of concern may spread more quickly than other strains and poses a much higher risk of reinfection because it has double the number of mutations as the deadly Delta variant.
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