Medical experts suspect even people who have already had Covid will be highly susceptible to reinfection by the new Omicron strain of the virus as it begins to spread worldwide.
Epidemiologist Nancy Baxter, who is the head of Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at University of Melbourne, said ‘there’s reason to be concerned but no reason to panic’ about the new variant.
Australia has temporarily introduced a hard border with nine countries in southern Africa – the source of the new strain – and state and federal leaders are on high alert, with three cases already detected in returned travellers and a fourth under investigation.
Experts say information on the new variant is sketchy and given how fresh its emergence is, it’s too early to determine exactly how rapidly it might spread or how potent it might be.
Anecdotal evidence from medics in southern Africa suggests Omicron is more contagious than the now common Delta strain but symptoms are milder, particularly in the vaccinated population.
The World Health Organisation indicated Omicron may pose a greater risk of ‘reinfection’ than previous variants – meaning even those who have already been infected with and recovered from Covid could be at risk again.
Here, Daily Mail Australia explains what we know so far about the latest Covid strain gripping the globe.
Epidemiologists say it is likely Omicron has already spread worldwide despite cases only being recorded in a handful of countries so far (pictured in red)
Australia has temporarily introduced a hard border with nine countries in southern Africa and state and federal leaders are on high alert, with three cases already detected in quarantine and a fourth under investigation. Pictured is an unrelated reunion at Adelaide Airport when South Australia recently reopened its state borders.
How many countries are already infected with Omicron?
Omicron was first detected in Botswana on November 9, but there is not yet any data about where it originated or how it mutated.
Just 25 per cent of the adult population in South Africa is fully vaccinated, and this accounts for how rapidly it has run through communities there.
Ian Sanne, an infectious-disease specialist and member of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Council on Covid-19, said his team believe Omicron is now becoming the most dominant strain of the virus in the southern part of the continent, succeeding Delta.
‘Overall, we do think it’s more transmissible,’ he said.
Since its initial discovery, the new strain has been identified in Britain, Belgium, Botswana, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy and Canada, as well as at least three cases in Australia.
While the United States is yet to confirm any cases of Omicron, President Joe Biden is said to be on high alert and has already issued an urgent plea for eligible Americans to get their booster shots, while his chief health advisor Anthony Fauci said it is highly likely the strain has already entered the country.
Eric Feigel-Ding, an epidemiologist, told DailyMail.com on Friday that he believed the new variant was ‘probably worldwide’ already.
Anyone arriving from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini and Malawi will now need to isolate at a health facility for 14 days under the new emergency measures (pictured, swab testing in Sydney Airport)
What makes Omicron a ‘variant of concern’?
The new Covid strain is different to previous variants because there is a greater number of mutations in the cells.
Omicron’s genetic profile is unique, representing a new lineage of the virus that has not yet been traced back to a specific time or place.
But experts are calling for calm globally as further testing is underway, indicating it could actually be a good thing that Omicron is spreading so rapidly.
If this particular genetic mutation is less deadly and causes milder symptoms it could be beneficial for the new strain to spread and replace Delta.
Dr Nick Coatsworth said early reports from southern Africa suggested the new strain may spread throughout communities faster, but the symptoms were far milder in vaccinated patients.
‘If this is milder than Delta you actually want it to spread within your community,’ the former deputy chief medical officer told Nine’s Today show on Monday.
‘You want it to out-compete Delta and become the predominant circulating virus. It could be that we want Omicron to spread around the world as quickly as possible.’
The World Health Organisation said on Friday preliminary evidence suggests this variant – which has more than 30 mutations within the spike protein – may have an increased risk of reinfection compared with other Covid strains.
Viruses regularly mutate. There have been 13 mutations of Covid-19 seen in Australia alone, and normally they make very little difference to the way a virus spreads. But in some cases, mutations can make a virus spread faster or more prone to evading a vaccine or tolerance built through previous exposure.
A variant of concern is only declared after scientists determine the strain to be more contagious, lead to more serious illness or limit the impact of public health measures protecting against other strains of the virus.
The World Health Organisation said on Friday preliminary evidence suggests this variant – which has more than 30 mutations within the spike protein – may have an increased risk of reinfection compared with other Covid strains. Pictured: A visual distinction between the delta
Are vaccines effective against Omicron?
There are concerns the Omicron variant will be less responsive to the vaccines already on the market.
Both the United Kingdom and United States have already called on eligible residents to receive their booster shots to offer maximum protection against Omicron.
Australian virus expert Professor Tony Blakely it will take weeks before we know if booster shots are worthwhile or useless in tackling the new strain.
‘It’s quite likely that this will precipitate new branches of vaccine development, there’s just so many mutations on this virus it would seem most likely we will need new vaccines,’ he said.
‘The worst-case scenario is it’s more infectious, it’s more virulent, and it’s resistant to current vaccines.’
Health Minister Greg Hunt revealed on Monday morning he’s in discussions with the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation on the time frame of Australia’s booster shot rollout in light of the recent developments.
According to a spokeswoman from BioNTech, which developed a vaccine in coordination with Pfizer, scientists could produce an adjusted vaccine within six weeks, if required.
Several nations – Australia included – imposed a hard border with African countries that have been exposed to the virus within hours of Omicron being declared a variant of concern (pictured, passengers arriving at Sydney Airport on Monday morning)
Will Omicron cause severe illness, and will existing treatments work?
The doctor who first raised the alarm about Omicron said patients are presenting with ‘unusual’ symptoms.
Dr Angelique Coetzee, who runs a private practice in the South African capital of Pretoria, said she first noticed earlier this month Covid patients were testing positive despite not having any of the hallmark symptoms.
The doctor, who has practiced for over 30 years and chairs the South African Medical Association, said none of the Omicron patients suffered a loss of taste or smell which is typically associated with Covid.
Instead they presented with markers like intense fatigue and a rapid pulse.
‘Their symptoms were so different and so mild from those I had treated before,’ Dr Coetzee told The Telegraph.
She was compelled to inform South Africa’s vaccine advisory board on November 18 when she treated a family of four, all of whom were suffering with intense fatigue after testing positive for Covid.
Globally, there are still a relatively small amount of confirmed Omicron cases, making it hard for medical professionals to determine just how dangerous the variant is.
It will likely take several more weeks to notice if there is a spike in hospitalisations and deaths.
What’s being done to halt the spread of Omicron and how far could it have already spread?
US and Europe earlier placed six countries on the red list before Australia added another three – Malawi, Mozambique and Seychelles
Several nations – Australia included – imposed a hard border with African countries that have been exposed to the virus within hours of Omicron being declared a variant of concern.
Anyone arriving from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and Malawi will now need to isolate at a health facility for 14 days under the new emergency measures.
New arrivals in NSW from anywhere else in the world will need to isolate at home or their accommodation and await further health advice.
At this stage, state Premier Dominic Perrottet said there were no plans to bring back hotel quarantine and he stressed the importance of the state’s high vaccination rate in protecting the community.
‘We’re very confident based on our higher vaccination rates,’ he said. ‘That is not the case in these southern African nations.
‘Vaccination is key to NSW being able to continue to open up safely. Our number one priority is to keep our people safe, keep businesses open and keep people in work.’
But public health experts say it’s likely the new variant is already spreading rapidly through nations even beyond those where cases have already been detected.
The first known case in Hong Kong is a traveller who landed on November 11, meaning they’ve been potentially infectious for two weeks in the community.
Meanwhile in Belgium, a young unvaccinated woman has been diagnosed with the variant despite not travelling to southern Africa. She is understood to have developed symptoms 11 days after travelling to Egypt via Turkey.
Will emergence of Omicron upend plans to return to Covid-normal in Australia?
In short, it’s not yet clear what impact Omicron will have on Australia’s roadmap out of lockdown.
Australia’s national security committee will meet on Monday afternoon to look at whether the country can reopen to double-dosed visa holders, skilled workers and international students from Wednesday as scheduled.
A national cabinet meeting made up of federal, state and territory leaders is also expected on either Monday or Tuesday to consider Australia’s response.
Christmas holiday plans are at risk as fears of international and state border closures domino following the emergence of the Covid variant Omicron. Pictured: Passenger arrives at Sydney Airport
Passengers wear face masks as they arrive at the departures terminal at Sydney Domestic Airport in Sydney
Queensland reported five new Covid cases on Monday from one family who had recently arrived after travelling through Pakistan. They are together in hotel quarantine ‘as a family unit’ while testing is underway to identify the strain they are infected with.
Deputy Premier Steven Miles said the state would be taking a cautious approach before implementing any new restrictions.
‘As they always do, the health officials are monitoring issues around the world and if that should affect things here,’ he said. ‘Nothing has changed at this moment.’
South Australia and Western Australia tightened border restrictions as other premiers around the nation also start to consider harsher controls.
Trade and Tourism Minister Dan Tehan said he couldn’t rule out restrictions to other nations if the outbreak spreads, or more drastic measures if Omicron turned out to be dangerous.
‘We’ve taken a cautionary approach, that’s what we’ll continue to take as we work through what this variant is all about and what potential impacts it may have,’ he said.
‘We think that’s got the balance right at the moment, but there’s obviously more work that needs to be done in understanding the new variant and the potential impacts it might have.’
Why is it called Omicron?
The World Health Organisation is responsible for naming Covid variants, and has followed a trend of using letters of the Greek alphabet.
In naming Omicron, the WHO skipped both Nu and Xi.
It’s understood this was done to avoid confusion or offence.
‘Nu is too easily confounded with ‘new,’ and Xi was not used because it is a common surname,’ the WHO said in a statement.
‘Best practices for naming new diseases suggest avoiding ”causing offence to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups”.’
Viruses regularly mutate. There have been 13 mutations of Covid-19 seen in Australia alone, and normally they make very little difference to the way a virus spreads
Pictured: The spike in Covid cases in South Africa in the month of November
Will Omicron impact any other aspects of life in Australia?
The Australian share market’s S&P/ASX200 was 1.1 per cent weaker upon opening and Qantas shares tumbled by 4.8 per cent in the opening minutes as investors feared a renewed ban on interstate and overseas travel.
But in both cases, the losses moderated within the first hour, after panic selling was followed by quick bargain hunting.
IG market analyst Kyle Rodda said investors are concerned that a vaccine-resistant variant that could cause economic damage by sparking more lockdowns and travel restrictions.
‘There are a series of unanswered questions about what this actually means for the global economy and the global growth outlook more broadly,’ he told Daily Mail Australia on Monday.
‘Until those questions are basically answered, we’re going to see a high level of uncertainty reign in financial markets. Any time there’s a high level of uncertainty, it means a high level of volatility and normally that’s really bad for equities.
‘At the moment, we’re in an environment where the ultimate fear is that we’re back to something pre-vaccines, the horrible days of 2020 where we have a virus that’s more virulent than Delta, that maybe leads to more severe outcomes potentially and is vaccine resistant.’
During times of turmoil, safe haven assets like gold and government bonds are attractive to investors, along with benchmark currencies like the US dollar, Japanese yen and Swiss franc.
What Omicron means for YOUR trip: How EVERY Australian state and territory is responding to the new mutant Covid variant – as paranoid premiers threaten to ruin Christmas
By Aidan Wondracz for Daily Mail Australia
NSW has temporarily re-imposed a 72-hour self-isolation requirement for all international arrivals.
NSW Jobs Minister Stuart Ayres announced on Sunday the state government was prepared to clamp down on travellers arriving from overseas.
‘We will take the necessary measures, including restarting quarantine if required, to protect our community and our economy,’ he said.
A government source said work was underway to restore hotel quarantine if required, but the preferred option will be home isolation unless the strain was deemed extremely severe.
Premier Dominic Perrottet has vowed the state will stay open and forge ahead with its Covid roadmap despite fears about the Omicron variant.
Mr Perrotet said Omicron could be contained and the state’s timeline of lifting restrictions at 95 per cent vaccination or on December 15 was on track.
He said ‘for the moment’ he intended to stick with the state’s plan as NSW could not be a ‘hermit kingdom on the other side of the world’.
‘Ultimately, we not only need to learn to live alongside the virus, but live alongside the variants as well,’ he said.
‘This pandemic is not over. These variants will continue, cases will continue to rise and the best thing we can do to keep the community safe, keep your family safe is to go out and get vaccinated and get that booster shot when you can.’
Victoria has also reintroduced the 72-hour self-isolation requirement for all international arrivals.
All arrivals must have an international passenger travel permit and take a PCR test within 24 hours of arriving in the state.
They must take another test between the fifth or seventh day after arrival.
Unvaccinated travellers must spend 14 days in hotel quarantine.
Government sources said the Victorian Government was considering extending quarantine and reintroducing mask mandates in some settings.
New health orders could be announced as early as Monday, the sources said, and were likely to be also rolled out by state and territory leaders across the country.
Doubt has been raised whether Queensland will push ahead with its plans to reopen its state borders when 80 per cent of its residents have been fully-vaccinated.
The Sunshine State was expected to hit the target between December 6 and 12 – just weeks before Christmas.
Queensland deputy chief health officer Peter Aitken said he could not guarantee the borders would be reopened without quarantine.
Travellers could be forced to isolate if they visit hotspots in NSW and Victoria.
Deputy premier Steven Miles reassured that ‘nothing has changed at this moment’.
‘As they always do, the Health Officials are monitoring issues around the world and if that should affect things here,’ he said.
International arrivals are currently required to go into hotel quarantine while returned travellers from states with open borders must go into home quarantine.
States have taken extra precautions to protect their residents with travel restrictions tightened and quarantine rules reintroduced
Premier Mark McGowan on Saturday evening shut his state’s borders to South Australia in a draconian effort to lock out the mutant new strain, as it allows in visitors from NSW and Victoria.
The ruling means only vaccinated South Australians can enter WA, where they must immediately go into quarantine for 14 days.
‘The new variant emerged in southern Africa and is now understood to have been detected in Europe, Asia and the Middle East,’ Mr McGowan said.
‘With little known about the variant, it is important we act with an abundance of caution in dealing with potential spread into WA from overseas travellers arriving in other states.’
WA Health Minister Roger Cook was worried that overseas travellers could enter South Australia without quarantine if they came from Victoria, NSW or Canberra.
‘South Australia’s relaxed border policy has seen increased infections from other States, and while they have not yet had community transmission, there is an increased number of exposure sites,’ Mr Cook said.
Travellers from NSW are not permitted to enter WA without approval.
If approved to enter WA, visitors from NSW must immediately self-quarantine in a ‘suitable premises’ for 14 days.
South Australia also tightened its border rules following the emergence of the Omicron variant.
All international travellers and people arriving in SA from high-risk locations in Australia will once again be required to quarantine for 14 days.
Travellers from low-risk or moderate Local Government Areas will be required to get tested for Covid-19 three days before going to the state.
It came less than a week after the state flung open its state borders last Tuesday for the first time in months.
More than 30,000 people have already applied to enter the state with travellers arriving from NSW, Victoria and the ACT.
The state is only accepting fully-vaccinated arrivals while the unvaccinated will need to apply for an exemption, with those applications to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
All vaccinated international travellers who have arrived in the state in the last couple of days must quarantine until November 30.
Unvaccinated arrivals must undergo hotel quarantine for 14 days.
The Northern Territory is only accepting fully-vaccinated travellers, state residents or people who have a medical exemption into the state.
International arrivals are still required to undergo 14 days of hotel quarantine.
Domestic travellers or international arrivals from a red zone can may apply to undergo seven days of home quarantine.
All travellers must complete a Border Entry form before their arrival.
Travellers from low-risk areas in Australia are not required to quarantine.
Arrivals from moderate-risk areas must quarantine at home for 14 days, while those from high-risk areas are not allowed into the state unless they are an essential worker.
International arrivals must be fully-vaccinated and will be required to quarantine for 14 days.