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Australia: Is it inevitable the Omicron variant of COVID-19 will spread like Delta?

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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.

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"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.

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"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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"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.

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"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."

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Omicron joins an alphabet of COVID-19 variants — here’s how it differs to those that came before .
There have been 11 COVID-19 strains named by the WHO, including the newly-identified Omicron. But what happened to the rest of them?At present, it is unclear whether Omicron is more transmissible than Delta, which prompted lockdowns across Australia's east coast earlier this year, or if it will impact vaccine immunity.

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