Coronavirus: New Zealand in 'good position' to combat new Omicron variant - Ministry of Health

New Zealand remains in a "good position" to minimise the impact of any new variants as the potentially dangerous Omicron variant spreads in southern African countries.

The new COVID-19 variant was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) from South Africa on November 24. They say Omicron has a "large number" of mutations, some of which are "concerning".

Preliminary evidence suggests that there's an increased risk of infection with the variant compared to others, WHO says, and Omicron has been detected as growing at a faster rate than other surges in infection.

The Ministry of Health says it is continuing to assess information on the new variant.

"Knowledge about this emerging variant is in its infancy and we are closely watching and monitoring evidence and countries' responses," it says.

"Vaccine producing companies will now start assessing any impact the strain will have on vaccine efficacy. However, our advice to the public remains that vaccines are the number one protection against COVID-19 - including against the Delta variant responsible for our current outbreak."

There is no change to the advice on booster vaccines, which are available from Monday for anyone over the age of 18 who got their second dose more than six months ago. The Ministry of Health says there's no need to rush to get the booster since the science shows that fully vaccinated people remain well protected from infection and getting seriously ill if they do get COVID-19

"We will advise on any potential impacts for New Zealand, noting that we remain in a good position to minimise the impact of any new variants with isolation and routine testing of international arrivals."

Chris Hipkins.
Chris Hipkins. Photo credit: Getty Images

As a result of the Omicron variant, New Zealand has moved a number of southern African countries onto the 'very high risk' list in a bid to contain the Omicron's spread. These countries are: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Seychelles, Malawi, and Mozambique. Only New Zealand citizens from these countries will be able to enter Aotearoa.

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says this "precautionary approach" will "reduce the chance of Omicron entering New Zealand".

"[Returnees] will be required to stay in managed isolation for a full 14-day period and undergo testing. The extended MIQ requirement will also apply to those already in transit from these countries," Hipkins says.

"The newer model of seven days in managed isolation and three days at home for other returnees will continue – there is still good evidence this model is safe and provides a high level of protection against the virus entering our communities.

"I am also assured by the fact that the number of travellers we get from each of these countries is low."

Hipkins said it was the Government's understanding that Omicron is "still very much in its infancy" and is confident it hasn't entered New Zealand. Whole genome sequencing is carried out routinely and all recent MIQ cases have been the Delta variant.