Coronavirus: Michael Baker says Omicron variant manageable for NZ, could be 'very grim' for poor countries

A leading epidemiologist says the new Omicron COVID-19 variant could be "very grim" for poor countries but is likely manageable for New Zealand.

There's concern about the new variant which is spreading around the world and has been found in South Africa, UK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Botswana, Israel, Australia and Hong Kong.

It's unknown how bad the variant is or how effective vaccines will be against it. 

Epidemiologist Michael Baker told The AM Show it's unlikely the variant will be completely resistant to vaccination. 

"It's got a lot of mutations and many of these mutations affect the spike protein and that's the key part of the virus it attaches to cells and gives it entry into the cells. The other concern is that's the target of vaccines and also natural immunity if you've been previously exposed so it might mean this variant is better able to evade that immunity," Baker said. 

"But actually it's unlikely that our vaccines won't still work effectively against it, that's something we need to find out."

Baker said unfortunately the variant is extremely infectious which makes it harder to combat. 

"We need to know more about's early days. This is now the system globally that people doing surveillance of these vaccines are looking very closely, so in a sense that's quite reassuring because with the Delta variant it really caught the world off guard and we were very slow to act. 

"Now we are acting very fast and I think that means the news travels very quickly. We shouldn't catastrophise a situation."

Baker said while Omicron is likely manageable in countries with high vaccination rates like New Zealand, poor countries could struggle. 

"This is particularly in New Zealand, it's a manageable problem. But unfortunately, it could be quite grim in some parts of the world where they're already suffering from very few resources and low vaccination." 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern offered assurances earlier in the show saying the Government is keeping a close eye on it. 

Ardern said the country will be well served by our border controls. 

"We are fortunate that unlike many other countries who have made quite significant alterations at their border, we have a border management system that allows us, when we see issues of concern, just to elevate the classifications of certain countries."

But she said it's too early to tell how much of an impact the variant will have on New Zealand's COVID response.