Just weeks after Australia declared it was opening its borders to the world, some restrictions have been reimposed in response to the Omicron variant of COVID-19, first detected in South Africa.
The federal government on Saturday announced that non-Australian citizens who have been in nine countries in southern Africa where Omicron has been detected are barred from entering Australia.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has already declared it a "variant of concern", which University of Sydney epidemiologist Alexandra Martiniuk said was "very quick".
"Usually they say it's a 'variant of interest' and often it will sit as 'variant of interest' for some time — even weeks — but they've designated this a 'variant of concern' quite quickly.
What you need to know about the omicron variant
Omicron is the newest Covid-19 “variant of concern,” according to the World Health Organization.Though the variant’s existence was first reported by South Africa, it has also been found in Belgium, Botswana, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, and the United Kingdom, meaning the variant has already spread — though how far is unclear, as new cases continue cropping up around the world.
"So obviously there are indications of a serious red flag."
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Australia's Chief Medical Officer said while little was known about Omicron, it was "quite different" to previous variants of concern.
"We do not, at this point, have any clear indication that it is more severe, or any definite indication of issues in relation to the vaccine," he added.
Nancy Baxter, head of the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, said shutting the borders to certain countries was a "tough" measure but the right move, given what we know so far about Omicron.
There are fears it could be more infectious than other strains of COVID, and more resistant to vaccines.
"We all look back at Delta and wish we had acted faster on the information we had," Professor Baxter said.
COVID around the world: Israel to ban foreigners as other nations tighten restrictions on Britons
Global concern about the coronavirus pandemic is growing, with a number of countries detecting confirmed cases of the Omicron variant for the first time. © Associated Press Travel restrictions are being imposed once again as governments suspend flights from southern Africa Travel restrictions are also being imposed once again as governments suspend flights from southern Africa, the region where this strain was first detected. Here is a look at the latest COVID-19 developments around the world.On Saturday, Israel unveiled plans to ban all foreigners from entering the country.
"It does seem to be taking off in South Africa. It's hard to know whether that really means that it's that much more transmissible than Delta or if there just wasn't much Delta around to compete with it."
Authorities will need to keep an eye on other countries where Omicron may already have spread, Professor Baxter added.
Cases have also been detected in countries including Israel and Belgium.
Omicron highlights low vaccination rates in southern Africa
Experts say the emergence of Omicron underlines the need to boost vaccine rates in poor countries — particularly in Africa.
"A more effective way to prevent the variant's spread would be to increase vaccination rates in southern African countries as opposed to locking them out from the rest of the world," said Vinod Balasubramaniam, an infectious diseases expert at Monash University Malaysia.
US President Joe Biden has said intellectual property protections on COVID vaccines should be waived, especially in light of Omicron.
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Sajid Javid said the government was taking 'proportionate and balanced' precautions to 'buy time', but stressed there is no certainty that the 'super-mutant' strain will be able to dodge jabs.The Health Secretary said the government was taking 'proportionate and balanced' precautions to 'buy time', confirming that masks will be compulsory again in shops and on public transport from Tuesday.
"Every time the virus reproduces inside someone there's a chance of it mutating and a new variant emerging," Dr Balasubramaniam said.
"It's a random process, a bit like rolling dice. The more you roll, the greater the chance of new variants appearing.
"The main way to stop variants is equal global vaccination. The emergence of Omicron reminds us of how important that goal remains."
Professor Martiniuk said authorities in South Africa and its neighbouring countries should be thanked for "having good surveillance", noticing the emergence of Omicron and highlighting it to the global community.
"The way we're going to stop this happening is by helping to vaccinate the whole world. And unfortunately we're not doing that very well," she said.
While Australia and other rich countries roll out booster shots, South Africa is yet to vaccinate 40 per cent of its adult population — albeit a much higher rate than many of its neighbours.
Less than 8 per cent of Africa's more than 1.2 billion people are fully vaccinated.
Only one in four health workers on the continent are fully vaccinated, the WHO reported this week.
Fauci warns arrival of Omicron variant in the US is 'inevitable'
Omicron variant still hasn't arrived in the US after the White House banned travel to 8 African nations on Friday, tanking the Dow. Anthony Fauci said today that the new COVID strain is 'inevitable.''The fifth wave, or the magnitude of any increase... will really be dependent upon what we do in the new few weeks to a couple months,' Fauci said on CBS's 'Face the Nation' today.
"Unless our doctors, nurses and other frontline workers get full protection we risk a blowback in the efforts to curb this disease," Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said in a statement.
"We must ensure our health facilities are safe working environments."
Mask wearing, social distancing encouraged
Despite high rates of vaccination in Australia, experts are warning against complacency.
"There has been discussion about scaling back contact tracing — that is not a good idea," Professor Martiniuk said.
"We should continue with QR code check-in, masking, especially while we try to understand Omicron, because it may already be here in Australia."
There are no known cases in Australia, however, Professor Kelly said authorities were monitoring the situation closely.
And the WHO said it would take "a few weeks" to understand the full impact of Omicron.
In the meantime, measures that have been used throughout the pandemic to stop the spread of the virus needed to be maintained, Professor Baxter said.
"Masks work on all forms of COVID. Social distancing works on all forms of COVID. Better ventilation works on all forms of COVID.
"New variants are one of the reasons why we need to think about more than just vaccines," she said.
"We need to think about vaccines, plus the other things that we can do to reduce transmission."[Click through to send us your questions about COVID-19]