Our plan to reopen to the world next year could be scuppered by the new 'Omicron' variant that's been found in southern Africa, one of New Zealand's top experts says.
The Government earlier this week said managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) would be phased out for fully vaccinated Kiwis over January and February, and for international visitors from the end of April.
But that was before South African scientists announced they'd stumbled on a worrying new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus which early data suggests could be several times more infectious than the original, and appears to be outcompeting Delta.
The discovery has prompted a number of nations to cut off travel from the region, including the UK, Canada and the US. The World Health Organization (WHO) wasted no time in elevating the strain, originally called B.1.1.529, to its exclusive 'variants of concern' list. Omicron is just the fifth to make the cut.
"With good reason," University of Otago epidemiologist Michael Baker told Newshub Nation on Saturday morning.
"This variant caused alarm amongst virologists because it has a very large number of mutations, and some of these mutations affect the structure of the spike protein, which is so important for the effectiveness of vaccines.
"The other factor is it appeared to be outcompeting the Delta variant in an area of South Africa. That really means it's tipping the balance into this category of 'variant of concern'."
Variants of concern are mutated viruses with the potential to be more infectious, more lethal and evade vaccine protection. Dr Baker said it's clear already Omicron is more infectious, but it will take a few weeks to find out whether it's deadlier or is better at evading the vaccines.
The current vaccines were developed last year to fight off the original virus, and though they're not so great at preventing transmission against the likes of Delta, they still offer very strong protection against serious illness and death. Dr Baker said it's important people who haven't got vaccinated yet do so as soon as possible.
"Viruses don't suddenly change so you get no protection from the vaccine - all that might happen is the vaccine might be somewhat less effective and it might make the booster more important. but that's still our best defence at an individual level, and our best defence as a nation is the strategy we've got at our borders."
He said if Omicron turns out to be a worse threat than Delta, it could force the Government to rethink its border strategy - and even go back to an elimination strategy, rather than continue moving towards suppression, at least for Omicron.
"It could mean a change. One of the huge benefits New Zealand has compared with most countries in the world is we can manage our borders if we need to… If we have to turn down the tap to manage this threat more cautiously, yes, that could reduce the volume of people coming into New Zealand...
"The first step is excluding it entirely, which is part of the elimination approach. But yes, look, if this variant did become serious and a global health threat - and particularly if it was a threat to the effectiveness of vaccines… we would have to rethink our current strategy in quite a big way."
It's still early days though, he said, with much more research to be done.
"We don't want to catastrophise the situation because we've had a number of variants that have emerged and haven't really been that important. I think this is a bit different - it does look like there is real concern here. But again, we need to wait - we need more information, it's very early days...
"We've got time - that's the great benefit New Zealand has because our Government is taking a cautious approach to this pandemic. This is an example I think of why that caution is justified."
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson, in an interview recorded on Friday and aired on Saturday morning, said lockdowns remain a possibility if Omicron made its way here and began to spread - even after we've shifted to the traffic light system.
"We've always said from the beginning of this is that we believe that the framework is robust. We've got the opportunity if we have to for localised lockdowns within that. But we also see that the alert level framework sits there in the background. If we had to use it, it is a last resort assignment. It is not something that we are considering at the moment.
"But we said from the beginning of the launch of this framework in late October that we have to be mindful of the fact that COVID is not finished around the world. We will keep an eye on any new variants. There is no proposal to return to lockdowns, but we do have the legal framework sitting there in the background if it needed to be used."
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