Australians may soon need three shots of a Covid jab to be considered ‘fully-vaccinated’, as Scott Morrison calls an emergency national cabinet meeting with state leaders just days out from Christmas.
The controversial plan is top of the agenda for the high-level talks, as fears grow the nation’s Omicron Covid outbreak is starting to spiral out of control.
Health ministers in both New South Wales and Victoria have also issued a joint letter urging the government to fast-track the booster roll-out, allowing Australians to access the jab just four months after their second dose.
The scientific evidence on how effective two shots are against the new supermutant strain remain unclear, but on Monday vaccine producer Moderna announced its booster dose can beat Omicron.
A study found a third dose increased the level of neutralising antibodies against Omicron by around 37-fold compared to waning immunity from two doses.
But as cases continue to surge in Australia, medical experts aren’t celebrating just yet.
Scott Morrison (pictured on Monday) has called an emergency national cabinet meeting with state leaders just days out from Christmas as fears grow the nation’s Omicron Covid outbreak is starting to spiral out of control
Huge lines of cars are seen at a Covid-19 test at Bondi Beach in Sydney as thousands scramble to get tested before seeing family over Christmas
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee has written to the national cabinet urging face masks to be made mandatory indoors and wants booster shot coverage to be ramped up nationwide (pictured, a Sydney shopper in a face mask on December 16)
Health officials who advise the government on their pandemic response are clamouring behind the scenes for more action amid record case numbers, which climbed to just under 4000 nationally on Monday.
The prime minister, along with NSW premier Dominic Perrottet, are holding firm on their stance that life needs to return to normal with interstate borders open and measures like mask-wearing a matter of ‘personal responsibility’.
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee has written to the national cabinet urging face masks to be made mandatory indoors and wants booster shot coverage to be ramped up nationwide.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly in the advice states the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation are now considering whether switch fully vaccinated status from two shots to three.
There is still great uncertainty about whether Omicron is less severe than previous strains like Delta, but it is known the supermutant variant is much more transmissible.
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee warns even if Omicron is less severe the surge in cases could greatly ‘strain health system capacity’ as it has done in places like the UK, where a fourth round of lockdown-style measures are becoming an increasing possibility.
Massive queues pile up at at the Russell Street testing clinic in Melbourne on Monday (pictured) as Covid cases climb
Healthcare workers (pictured in Sydney) are under increasing strain as the numbers of close contacts spiral along with the influx of Covid cases across the country
AUSTRALIAN COVID CASE NUMBERS EXPLODE:
NSW: 2,501 new cases
Victoria: 1,302 new cases
Tasmania: 3 new cases
ACT: 13 new cases
Queensland: 59 new cases
SA: 105 new cases
NT: 3 new cases
WA: 0 new cases
*Monday’s official numbers.
Mr Kelly recommends ‘minimal to moderate restrictions’ should be brought in across all states and territories as infection rates soar.
‘Masks should be mandated in all indoor settings including retail, hospitality when not eating or drinking, and entertainment facilities,’ the advice states.
The plea from health officials comes as a spat breaks out between the federal government and the health ministers of Victoria and NSW.
NSW Liberal Health Minister Brad Hazzard along with his Victorian Labor counterpart Martin Foley have called on the federal Health Minister Greg Hunt to lean on ATAGI to shorten the mandatory waiting time for booster shots to just four months after receiving a second dose.
Just over a week ago the body brought the timeframe back from six months to five.
‘I worry that ATAGI are holding back on giving what is logical advice for earlier boosters because of concerns that pharmacies and GPs will be shutting down for Christmas,’ Mr Hazard said.
‘There needs to be careful explanation that while there may be wait time in some places, people should still be eligible from the four-month mark.’
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly in the advice states the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation are now considering whether switch fully vaccinated status from two shots to three (pictured, Sydney bars and restaurants are heaving before Christmas)
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly in the advice states the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation are now considering whether switch fully vaccinated status from two shots to three (pictured, a Sydney shopper on December 16)
NSW and Victoria are both in favour of reclassifying only those who have received three jabs as ‘fully vaccinated’ but want the federal government to pony up more supply of the vaccine.
The request has not gone down well with Mr Hunt, who has quietly accused NSW and Victoria of hoarding more than one million vaccine doses, The Australian reported.
Under the agreement to roll out vaccinations, the federal government supplies the jab to GPs and pharmacies while the states administer doses at vaccination hubs.
‘While GPs and pharmacies have scaled up, we hope all states maintain and indeed expand their programs to support the booster program, which is running ahead of schedule,’ Mr Hunt’s office said, hinting there is ample supply for booster shots.
On the top of the agenda for the national cabinet meeting is whether Australians should only be considered fully vaccinated if they’ve had a third jab (pictured, a woman is seen receiving a vaccination at a Cohealth pop-up vaccination clinic at the State Library Victoria in Melbourne on Monday)
But a Victorian government official said state-run vaccine hubs are increasing capacity and already starting to ramp up boosters and need more.
‘We’re doing our part – ramping up capacity at state-run sites, keeping more sites open, opening sites up for walk-ups and creating more bookings,’ a spokesperson said.
‘We hope to work with the commonwealth to ensure Victorians have the maximum protection against this new variant.’
Although two vaccine doses vastly increases immunity against Covid, that protection begins to wane in as little as six months.
Given Omicron spreads much faster and is more than five times more likely to reinfect than Delta, there are significant fears the strain could be more resistant to vaccines.
NSW and Victoria are in favour of reclassifying only those who have received three jabs as ‘fully vaccinated’ but want the federal government to pony up more supply of the vaccine (pictured, a busy Sydney bar on December 17)
But lab results by Moderna on Monday revealed the mRNA vaccine used widely in Australia should offer high protection against Omicron.
Moderna said this preliminary data, which is not yet peer reviewed, was ‘reassuring’, though it added that it will continue to develop a jab specific to the variant.
The data showed that 50mcg of the Moderna vaccine increased neutralising antibody levels against Omicron approximately 37-fold compared to pre-boost levels, while a full dose increased it 83-fold.
‘It’s highly effective, and it’s extremely safe. I think it will protect people through the coming holiday period and through these winter months [in the US], when we’re going to see the most severe pressure of Omicron,’ Moderna’s chief medical officer Dr Paul Burton said after the results were released.
Healthcare workers administer COVID-19 tests at a drive-through testing clinic at Bondi Beach in Sydney on Friday (pictured) as state leaders prepare for a National Cabinet meeting
There are increasing fears for thousands of Australians about becoming infected, or even being designated as a close contact, leading up to Christmas.
An isolation period of at least two weeks if someone has the virus, or seven days if they are deemed a close contact – even if they test negative – could leave many isolating alone over the festive period.
Testing centres have also seen an influx of people preparing to travel interstate, with most states and territories demanding a negative PCR test within 72 hours of arriving.
Such restrictions are not in place between Victoria and New South Wales, due to similarly high case loads.
Why is the new Omicron variant so scary?
What is so concerning about the variant?
Experts say it is the ‘worst variant they have ever seen’ and are alarmed by the number of mutations it carries.
The variant — which the World Health Organization has named Omicron — has 32 mutations on the spike protein — the most ever recorded and twice as many as the currently dominant Delta strain.
Experts fear the changes could make the vaccines 40 per cent less effective in a best-case scenario.
This is because so many of the changes on B.1.1.529 are on the virus’s spike protein.
The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike from older versions of the virus.
The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognize the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body’s immune system struggles to recognize it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body’s cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness
But because the spike protein looks so different on the new strain, the body’s immune system may struggle to recognise it and fight it off.
It also includes mutations found on the Delta variant that allow it to spread more easily.
Experts warn they won’t know how much more infectious the virus is for at least two weeks and may not know its impact on Covid hospitalizations and deaths for up to six weeks.
What mutations does the variant have?
The Botswana variant has more than 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein.
It carries mutations P681H and N679K which are ‘rarely seen together’ and could make it yet more jab resistant.
These two mutations, along with H655Y, may also make it easier for the virus to sneak into the body’s cells.
And the mutation N501Y may make the strain more transmissible and was previously seen on the Kent ‘Alpha’ variant and Beta among others.
Two other mutations (R203K and G204R) could make the virus more infectious, while a mutation that is missing from this variant (NSP6) could increase its transmissibility.
It also carries mutations K417N and E484A that are similar to those on the South African ‘Beta’ variant that made it better able to dodge vaccines.
But it also has the N440K, found on Delta, and S477N, on the New York variant — which was linked with a surge of cases in the state in March — that has been linked to antibody escape.
Other mutations it has include G446S, T478K, Q493K, G496S, Q498R and Y505H, although their significance is not yet clear.
Is it a variant of concern?
The World Health Organization has classified the virus as a ‘variant of concern’, the label given to the highest-risk strains.
This means WHO experts have concluded its mutations allow it to spread faster, cause more severe illness or hamper the protection from vaccines.
Where did B.1.1.529 first emerge?
The first case was uploaded to international variant database GISAID by Hong Kong on November 23. The person carrying the new variant was traveling to the country from South Africa.
The UK was the first country to identify that the virus could be a threat and alerted other nations.
Experts believe the strain may have originated in Botswana, but continental Africa does not sequence many positive samples, so it may never be known where the variant first emerged.
Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, told MailOnline the virus likely emerged in a lingering infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone with undiagnosed AIDS.
In patients with weakened immune systems infections can linger for months because the body is unable to fight it off. This gives the virus time to acquire mutations that allow it to get around the body’s defenses.
Will I be protected if I have a booster?
Scientists have warned the new strain could make Covid vaccines 40 per cent less effective at preventing infection – however the impact on severe illness is still unknown.
But they said emergence of the mutant variant makes it even more important to get a booster jab the minute people become eligible for one.
The vaccines trigger neutralizing antibodies, which is the best protection available against the new variant. So the more of these antibodies a person has the better, experts said.
Britain’s Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: ‘The booster jab was already important before we knew about this variant – but now, it could not be more important.’
When will we know more about the variant?
Data on how transmissible the new variant is and its effect on hospitalizations and deaths is still weeks away.
The UK has offered help to South Africa, where most of the cases are concentrated, to gather this information and believe they will know more about transmissibility in two to three weeks.
But it may be four to six weeks until they know more about hospitalizations and deaths.
What is the variant called?
The strain was scientifically named as B.1.1.529 on November 24, one day after it was spotted in Hong Kong.
The variants given an official name so far include Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma.
Experts at the World Health Organization on November 26 named the variant Omicron.