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 detected 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 Sunday (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 Sunday, the COVID B.1.1.529 variant was detected in New South Wales through two cases. Both cases were fully vaccinated and are in quarantine.

As of Thursday, there have been eight cases of the Omicron variant found in Australia (one in the Northern Territory and seven in NSW), with one of the seven cases in NSW having visited numerous shops across Western Sydney and the Central Coast in NSW over the weekend. All eight cases are currently isolating. The case announced on Thursday is quarantining, with contact tracing underway.

On Tuesday (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.

It’s believed that up to 90 per cent of cases in Gauteng could be linked to the new variant. The World Health Organisation has called it a “variant of concern”, and scientists around the world are still determining the best approach to Omicron.

“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.

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 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.

The Omicron variant has been found around the world, including in Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy and Malawi.

Dr. Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, said in a Twitter thread that this variant “very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile”, although it could be down to just being a strange cluster of mutations.

New South Wales Minister for Health Brad Hazzard said in a press conference that the Omicron variant could cause “a degree of concern going forward” and that it’s uncertain if any of the vaccines will work against it.

The World Health Organisation has called for calm, as it will take a few weeks to understand the full impact of the new variant.

Commentary from the CSIRO

On Thursday (December 2), the CSIRO’s special health advisor Dr. Rob Grenfell 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.