Thousands of Australians will be spending this Christmas locked in their homes as the Omicron Covid variant continues to seep though the country, sending positive cases and their close contacts into isolation.
Health officials in New South Wales have even admitted they have no clue how many cases of the highly-infectious mutant strain are now active in the state because it’s too expensive and time consuming to test for – but that there are likely thousands.
The revelation comes as worrying new international data finds Omicron is ‘no milder’ than the Delta variant – but five times more likely to re-infect.
Although 90 per cent of the Australian population over 16 are fully-vaccinated, the new variant is managing to spread in record numbers with the figure at 4,000 cases a day nationally and soaring.
Adding to the Christmas holiday panic is the immense strain on testing clinics as Australians desperate to travel interstate flock for swabs.
Most interstate travel, including to Queensland, requires a negative test before departure but with results taking two to three days, the wait is sending travel plans into turmoil.
Thousands of Australians will be spending this Christmas alone as the Omicron Covid variant continues to spread (pictured, tourists have a photo taken wearing Santa hats on Christmas Day on Bondi Beach in Sydney)
Long lines of cars wait for a Covid-19 test at the St Vincent’s Hospital drive-through testing clinic at Bondi Beach in Sydney on Sunday as thousands rush to get tested before Christmas Day
Queensland and Tasmania have both reintroduced mask mandates in indoor settings, amid rising case numbers as holiday visitors start to flood interstate.
The Sunshine State recorded 42 new cases on Sunday, while South Australia saw 80 infections and Victoria saw a slight drop to 1,240 – with 392 people in hospital.
While isolation requirements differ wildly between the states, all require household contacts of a positive case – or those who have spent significant time with them – to get tested and isolate.
In NSW, Premier Dominic Perrottet has so far refused to bring back any restrictions despite mounting pressure, just days after removing density limits and allowing the unvaccinated the same freedoms as those who’ve had the jab.
The daily infection rate in the state soared to a record 2,566 cases on Sunday with another 21 admitted to hospital.
Despite the rise in cases NSW’s high vaccination rate, above 95 per cent, has seen the state’s hospital system cope well with the growing outbreak.
There are 227 Covid patients in NSW hospitals, 28 of which are in ICU and ten require ventilation.
Mr Perrottet is confident no more restrictions are needed as long as admissions to ICU remain low.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet (pictured) is under pressure to reinstate some restrictions amid the rising number of Omicron cases
Restrictions including mandatory mask wearing were removed last week as shoppers packed the city ahead of Christmas (pictured on Sydney’s Pitt Street)
But while there is no official lockdown, the high number of cases is meaning a high number of close contacts are being forced to self-isolate over the Christmas break.
The strategy is also seeing Christmas plans for thousands thrown into jeopardy as Covid testing clinics struggle to keep up with demand, leading to long waits.
Some have reported waiting up to three days to receive results, with frustrated travellers letting loose on social media describing the agonising waiting periods.
Ian Pratt, who flew to NSW from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, was forced to extend a business trip to Sydney by an extra day so he could get tested before stepping on a plane to travel home.
‘To get test results back in time, I need to come to Sydney a day early, rush from the airport (and go) straight to the PCR testing centre to line up for three hours,’ he posted on Wednesday.
‘We’ve had almost two years to get ready for this, and this is the best system they could come up with.’
Health workers at a pop-up Covid-19 testing clinic are seen in Sydney’s Bondi, with 148,937 tests carried out on Saturday
A Sydneysider gets a swab test as the Omicron Covid variant threatens to derail Christmas plans for thousands
But the amount of Omicron seeping throughout NSW in particularly looks likely to become a mystery after a controversial announcement was buried by health officials.
In a series of daily tweets, NSW Health revealed it is now longer testing Covid patients for the Omicron variant unless ‘clinically relevant’ – and it’s left officials with no idea how many cases of the strain are now in the state.
In a series of Tweets on Sunday, NSW Health said while Omicron likely accounts for ‘the majority’ of the state’s recent record Covid cases, they don’t have the resources to test every case for the strain.
Only 313 Omicron cases have been recorded in the state – an official figure that’s now seemingly meaningless.
Superspreader Covid events
*Argyle House nightclub – Over 200 Covid cases – December 8
*Oxford Tavern trivia night in Petersham – Over 40 Covid cases – November 30
*A 1990s themed party boat on Sydney Harbour – December 3 – five Covid cases
*Taylor Swift album party at the Metro Theatre – 97 Covid cases – December 10
The admission follows a study released from Imperial College London which claims the risk of past cases becoming reinfected with Omicron is five times higher than Delta and symptoms did not appear to be milder.
‘NSW Health advises that the Omicron variant of concern likely accounts for the majority of today’s cases,’ NSW Health said.
The health department said they did not have the resources to make testing each Covid case for Omicron practicable.
‘With the high number of Covid-19 cases, NSW Health will only undertake genomic sequencing for the Omicron variant in the circumstances where it will make a clinical difference to the care of a patient.
‘For instance, where it will inform treatment choices as some therapies work with Delta but not for Omicron, and in situations where it will inform public health action’.
Epidemiologist and health researcher Professor Nancy Baxter told The Project on Friday that the easing of restrictions in NSW as case numbers surge ‘did not make sense’.
‘It doesn’t make any sense at all, and most jurisdictions have been increasing mask mandates (with the rise in Omicron cases),’ she said.
‘You have Queensland that has, what, 20 cases today, introducing a mask mandate. Compared to NSW that relaxes theirs when their cases go from 200 to 2000 in 10 days.’
Dr Kerry Chant has urged people to continue wearing masks (pictured on Wednesday)
Dr Chant was the only person present at the Wednesday press briefing last week who was standing beside NSW premier Dominic Perrottet to actually wear a mask (pictured)
Her statements echo those of chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant who urged mask wearing at a press briefing last week.
‘I would urge us to continue to wear those masks in indoor settings,’ Dr Chant said.
Her message appears at odds with the state government’s new mask-free policy.
During a testy exchange with reporters Dr Chant clarified that ending mask mandates was ‘a matter for governments’, but that people should take personal responsibility for their health.
‘From public health position I am strongly recommending wearing masks and asking the community to do so,’ she said.
Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid also weighed in, suggesting mask mandates should be reintroduced.
‘It is a little bit of a gamble, with a new variant clearly embedded now in New South Wales.’ he told the ABC’s Afternoon Briefing on Wednesday.
The health department said they did not have the resources to make testing each Covid case for Omicron practicable (pictured, a woman on Bondi Beach in Sydney dressed as Santa)
The calls to reintroduce mask mandates follow a new study on the strain released by a London university.
The results of the study by Imperial College London were based on UK Health Security Agency and National Health Service data on people who tested positive for Covid in a PCR test in England between November 29 and December 11.
‘We find no evidence (for both risk of hospitalisation attendance and symptom status) of Omicron having different severity from Delta,’ the study said, although it added that data on hospitalisations remains very limited.
‘Controlling for vaccine status, age, sex, ethnicity, asymptomatic status, region and specimen date, Omicron was associated with a 5.4-fold higher risk of reinfection compared with Delta,’ the study, which was dated Dec. 16, added.
The protection afforded by past infection against reinfection with Omicron may be as low as 19 per cent, Imperial College (ICL) said in a statement, noting that the study had not yet been peer reviewed.
The researchers found a significantly increased risk of developing a symptomatic Omicron case compared to Delta for those who were two or more weeks past their second vaccine dose, and two or more weeks past their booster dose.
The study involved AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines.
The Omicron variant is threatening to send Europe back into lockdown (pictured, crowds pack onto Northumberland Street in Newcastle in the UK on the final Saturday shopping day before Christmas)
Depending on the estimates used for vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic infection from the Delta variant, this translates into vaccine effectiveness of between 0 per cent and 20 per cent after two doses, and between 55 per cent and 80 per cent after a booster dose.
‘This study provides further evidence of the very substantial extent to which Omicron can evade prior immunity given by both infection or vaccination,’ study lead Professor Neil Ferguson said in ICL’s statement.
‘This level of immune evasion means that Omicron poses a major, imminent threat to public health.’
But Dr Clive Dix, former Chair of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, said it was important not to overinterpret the data.
‘The conclusions made are based on making assumptions about Omicron where we still don’t have sufficient data,’ Dr Dix said. ‘For example, we have no data on the cellular immune response which is now probably driving effectiveness of vaccines.’
‘This is a crucial missing assumption in the modelling.’
Thousands of Christmas shoppers swarmed London’s West End (pictured) despite record levels of Covid-19 infections in the UK – where Omicron is on the march
Some of the conclusions are different to the data emerging from South Africa, where vaccines are holding up well against severe disease and death at present, he said.
‘There is a huge amount of uncertainty in these modelled estimates and we can only be confident about the impact of boosters against Omicron when we have another month of data on hospitalisation ICU numbers and deaths,’ he said.
An earlier study by Britain’s SIREN looking at reinfection risk in health workers, which was carried out before Omicron emerged, found that a first coronavirus infection offered 85 per cent protection from a second for the following six months.
The data analysed by Imperial College was based on 333,000 cases, including 122,062 of Delta and 1,846 which were confirmed as the Omicron coronavirus variant through genome sequencing.
Imperial College’s Professor Azra Ghani, who co-led the study, described it as ‘essential for modelling the likely future trajectory of the Omicron wave and the potential impact of vaccination and other public health interventions.’
The new findings could accelerate the imposition of tighter restrictions across a number of European countries in a bid to stem the new variant’s spread.
The United States is also considering reinstating tough restrictions as the variant increases case numbers (pictured: people wait in line to get tested for Covid-19 at a mobile testing site in Times Square on Friday in New York)
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.