State borders could begin to slam shut once more as the new Omicron variant of Covid threatens to spread nationwide with at least 15 cases now suspected in Australia.
South Australia’s top doctor Professor Nicola Spurrier has reportedly twice this week demanded the state close its borders as the Omicron crisis deepens.
The state’s Covid chiefs are now due to meet on Saturday to finalise a possible border ban on travellers from NSW, Victoria and the ACT.
It follows Western Australia’s move to close its border with South Australia on Thursday night.
SA Police Commissioner Grant Stevens revealed meetings had been held throughout Friday to consider bringing back stricter border controls.
South Australia’s top doctor Professor Nicola Spurrier (pictured) has reportedly twice demanded the state close its borders in the last week as the Omicron crisis deepens
South Australia’s Covid chiefs are now due to meet on Saturday to finalise a possible border ban on travellers from NSW , Victoria and the ACT (pictured, passengers waiting to board a flight to Adelaide from Canberra)
Government officials are said to be ‘really concerned’ about ‘lax’ quarantine standards in NSW and Victoria.
‘This is not about Delta. We need the [Omicron] evidence but we don’t have that at the moment,’ Mr Stevens told the Herald Sun.
He said the crisis talks were about ‘what steps are appropriate for SA to ensure we are able to manage whatever the Omicron variant brings us’.
There are now 13 confirmed cases in NSW, one in the ACT and one in the Northern Territory.
An outbreak at a western Sydney school has had three Omicron cases confirmed, with urgent testing expected to add another 10 cases as the cluster explodes.
Regents Park Christian School has now been closed for the rest of the year over the outbreak and all students and staff have been ordered into isolation and to get tested.
One of the the latest case at Regents Park Christian School (pictured) in Sydney has not been overseas and has no links to people who have travelled abroad
A new case of Omicron has also been discovered in Canberra after ACT health officials confirmed the new mutant strain on Friday, two days after the person initially tested positive for Covid.
The fully-vaccinated person had not been travelling overseas, but contact tracers are yet to determine if the source of infection was in NSW or ACT.
The Northern Territory also detected an Omicron case at the Howard Spring quarantine facility in a recent arrival from South Africa.
Covid case numbers in NSW surged on Friday, rising to 337, while Victoria recorded another 1188 new cases, with 15,997 cases currently active across Australia
Covid case numbers in NSW surged on Friday, rising to 337, while Victoria recorded another 1188 new cases, with 15,997 cases currently active across Australia.
South Australia reported just one new Covid case on Friday after 18 cases – including former premier Jay Weatherill – surfaced in the state on Thursday in the wake of an outbreak cluster at a school reunion.
Western Australia immediately responded by shutting its border with South Australia late on Thursday, and Premier Mark McGowan warned Queensland could be next.
‘We’re awaiting further advice on Queensland, it’s obviously not quite as urgent as South Australia,’ Mr McGowan said.
NSW health minister Brad Hazzard said it appeared one of the Regents Park schoolboys had picked up the Omicron variant in the community – the first time that has occurred in Australia.
The discovery of the two further Omicron cases at the school sparked an alert on Friday evening for anyone who was at Sydney Indoor Climbing Gym in Villawood on November 27.
NSW Health said the newly-confirmed Omicron cases had been at the centre and anyone there at any time on the day is a close contact who must isolate and get tested immediately.
Meanwhile, NSW Health have released several new exposure sites that were visited by a separate Omicron case in Chatswood, in Sydney’s north.
The discovery of the two new Omicron cases sparked an alert on Friday evening for anyone who was at Sydney Indoor Climbing Gym in Villawood (pictured) on November 27
New exposure sites in Chatswood
Mantra Serviced Apartments
10 Brown Street
Tuesday 23 November to Wednesday 1 December
Vodafone, Level 3, Westfield Shopping Centre
1 Anderson Street
Wednesday 24 November
12:25pm to 12:40pm
Centrelink and Medicare
56-64 Archer Street
Wednesday 24 November
2:30pm to 4pm
Priceline Pharmacy, Chatswood Interchange
Shop 40, Concourse Level, Chatswood Interchange, Victoria Avenue
Wednesday 24 November
1pm to 1.10pm
Woolworths, Chatswood Interchange
Shop 55, Chatswood Interchange, Victoria Avenue
Wednesday 24 November
1pm to 1.10pm
A Woolworths store, Priceline pharmacy, Centrelink outlet and a Vodafone store were among the new sites.
The sites were visited by another family who previously travelled into Australia on Qatar Airways flight QR908 from Doha on November 23.
All passengers on board that flight have been forced into compulsory 14 day isolation and required to take regular PCR tests.
Despite the new Omicron case and the surge in infections, Premier Dominic Perrottet said the state was on track to reopen on December 15.
‘Case numbers will increase as we open up, and that is up to 15 December and beyond,’ he said.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt also eased concerns about the severity of the strain saying that the Omicron variant did not appear to be as ruthless as the Delta strain.
‘Transmission is always a concern. We need to keep it in perspective at the moment,’ he said.
‘Worldwide there isn’t clarity if this particular variant will cause us any problems as the other variants.
‘We’re not seeing people suddenly rushed to hospital. What we’re seeing is people who are asymptomatic.’
It comes as the reproduction rate in the South African province at the epicenter of the Omicron outbreak has surged from below one to over three in less than a month.
Public health officials in Gauteng province looked at the R0 (R-naught value) – a mathematical term that indicates how contagious an infectious disease is.
The number that follows ‘R’ indicates the average number of people who will contract COVID-19 from an infected person.
This means that officials believe at least thee people will become infected with if they come into contact with an infected individual.
In fact, officials estimate the number could be as high as 3.5.
The Omicron strain has triggered a meteoric rise in cases in South Africa, mostly concentrated in Guateng, since the country that first alerted the world about the highly-evolved virus on November 24.
In South Africa, daily new cases reached 11,535 on Thursday, marking a 370 percent rise in a week, and up one-third from the 8,500 recorded on Wednesday.
Omicron has become the dominant strain in the country in little over a week since it was officially discovered, making up 75 percent of sequenced samples.
While Omicron’s infectiousness seems unquestionable, there is growing uncertainty about how well it can evade vaccines and how severe the illness it causes will be.
Public health experts in South Africa and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have insisted cases are only mild and vaccines should still be highly effective against the strain, despite a lack of data.
Additionally, the WHO said on Friday that zero deaths around the world have been caused by the new variant.
But UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) epidemiologist Meaghan Kall warned that data currently suggests Omicron may be ‘worse’ than Delta – although the picture is still emerging.
She said she is ‘highly sceptical’ that the strain causes milder symptoms, saying infections may only appear less severe because people have immunity against other variants, unlike in the first wave.
Writing on Twitter, she said: ‘I am highly sceptical it could be more mild. I think the best case is it’s equivalent in severity to Delta… but you’ll see milder symptoms now, than Delta when it emerged, because many more people have immunity now.’
Scientist won’t know the full scale of Omicron’s infectiousness, vaccine evasiveness or lethality for another two or three weeks, when they can isolate the virus in a lab and study its biology and test it against the blood of previous-infected or vaccinated people.
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.