What You Need to Know About the B.1.1.529 Omicron COVID Variant

What You Need to Know About the B.1.1.529 Omicron COVID Variant
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A new variant of COVID-19 was flagged in South Africa on November 24. The B.1.1.529 variant (now known as the Omicron variant) includes a high number of mutations and might be able to evade the body’s immune system and be more transmissible.

The variant caused governments around the world to take action quickly. At the time of writing, Australia, the US, the UK and Europe have restricted travel to the region.

The new variant was detected in Australia on November 28, as two people tested positive for the virus after flying in from South Africa on November 27. Other passengers are being treated as close contacts. Here’s what we know about the B.1.1.529 variant.

What we know about the COVID B.1.1.529 variant, Omicron

On November 28, the COVID B.1.1.529 variant was detected in New South Wales through two cases — these were the first two cases detected in Australia. Cases of Omicron have surged well above 100 in NSW as of December 15, with a massive uptick in cases believed to be linked to Omicron and higher Delta transmission.

The Omicron variant has also been detected in the Northern Territory, Victoria, South Australia and the ACT. Booster shots have been encouraged at the earliest convenience — you can get your first booster shot after five months.

New South Wales Minister for Health Brad Hazzard said in a press conference on December 15 that the reproduction rate of the Omicron variant is up to 1.5 per cent higher than cases before it arrived in Australia.

“The vaccines are not stopping transmission — transmissions are quite high,” Minister Hazzard said, stressing that although the Omicron variant has higher transmissibility, getting vaccinated is still our best defence.

“Getting vaccinated may well save your life”, Minister Hazzard added.

The World Health Organization has called for calm, as it will take a few weeks to understand the full impact of the new variant. Although there have been signs of enhanced transmissibility in South Africa, WHO says that it’s not yet clear if the variant is more transmissible and added that preliminary evidence suggests an increased reinfection risk with Omicron, although it’s still early days.

Even though it has been widely reported that this variant was first detected in South Africa, the Omicron variant was first detected in Europe, as reported by Dutch health authorities.

On November 30, Australia’s expert immunisation panel announced that it was reviewing its booster shot program amid Omicron variant concerns.

“There are no signs at this stage that there is any breach to the integrity of the vaccine program, but we will follow the medical advice,” Minister Greg Hunt said at the time.

The Omicron variant contains over 30 mutations in the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 genome. Although some mutations are well characterised by scientists, many of them have been rarely observed until now, making the significance of this mutation uncertain. Despite this, the new variant has also been found to have milder symptoms, at least in younger and healthier people, according to Dr. Angelique Coetzee.

“This variant might have, not just enhanced transmissibilities to spread more efficiently, but might be able to get around parts of the immune system and the protection that we have in our immune system,” said infectious diseases specialist Richard Lessells in an online press conference.

“This lineage… Has a very high number of mutations with a concern for predicted immune evasion and transmissibility,” added Professor Tulio de Oliveira, the director of South Africa’s Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation (CERI).

“The world should provide support to South Africa and Africa and not discriminate or isolate it!” Professor Oliveira wrote in a tweet.

Commentary from the CSIRO and Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly

On December 2, the Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly provided some information on the Omicron variant situation.

The CSIRO’s special health advisor Dr. Rob Grenfell also provided commentary on the new strain of the virus.

“It’s expected the coronavirus will self-select for strains that will counter our efforts to control it. That means more infectious strains are likely to come out. This is because we’ve been trying to avoid the spread through our public health measures, like lockdowns and mask-wearing,” said Dr. Grenfell.

“It’s also anticipated a variant may emerge in the future that will have some degree of resistance against the current vaccines. This risk could be reduced if we have an effective global vaccine operation.

“Even if it is less severe than Delta, this is a numbers game – if many people get infected, even with a low hospitalisation rate, it still means a lot of people ending up in hospital.”

Dr. Grenfell added that it’s expected that our vaccines will still work against Omicron and that there have been reports of people who have previously had COVID-19 contracting Omicron.

“There could be potential for this virus to evade existing immunity provided by current vaccines,” said Dr. Seshadri Vasan, COVID-19 expert and CSIRO scientist, “As this variant of concern currently has a reproduction number above the threshold of 1 required to spread (preliminary reports place it between 1.3 and 1.6), and this variant contains several mutations in regions where antibody binding is known to occur.

“Those who are double or triple vaccinated can still expect some level of protection, so it is important to achieve high vaccination coverage and follow sensible precautions such as masks, social distancing, and meeting virtually or outdoors rather than in confined spaces.”

New travel restrictions in Australia

New travel restrictions have been put in place in Australia. As of midnight on November 27, all international arrivals in Victoria and NSW must isolate for 72 hours.

Anyone who has been in South Africa within the last 14 days will not be able to enter Australia unless they are an Australian citizen or are dependent on one. If you are travelling from South Africa or a neighbouring country, a 14-day quarantine will be required. This rule also applies to international students and migrant workers from countries Australia has a travel bubble formed with.

If you’ve arrived in Australia from South Africa or one of its neighbouring countries, you need to get tested immediately and isolate from the time you get to Australia. Neighbouring countries include Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles and Zimbabwe. Flights from South Africa have been suspended until December 11 at the earliest.

This post has been updated since it was first published on November 26, 2021, and we will continue to make updates as we learn more.