Siouxsie Wiles slams world leaders for not dealing with COVID-19 pandemic, says new variant Omicron inevitable

A leading health expert has slammed world leaders for not dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic properly, saying the new variant Omicron was inevitable.

University of Auckland associate professor Siouxsie Wiles says after almost two years of the pandemic, the world still isn't learning - leading to new variants being created.

"What it shows is that this is just another example of how globally the world is failing to deal with this pandemic," Dr Wiles tells Newshub. "We are not making vaccines available to everybody. No one is safe until we are all safe. 

"We've been saying this for nearly two years and it's staggering that the world isn't listening and responding appropriately."

The UK, the southern German state of Bavaria and Italy have detected cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant while authorities in the Czech Republic also said they had suspected cases.

Countries around the world have been quickly acting to news of this new variant. The UK and the EU were the first to place travel restrictions on southern African countries followed by Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand - which suspended flights and stopped all non-citizens arriving from the region. 

Dr Wiles says even though the Omicron variant is concerning and "worrying", she believes we are going to need to be patient until we understand all the information and data. 

"Yes we should be concerned, although how it will impact New Zealand is yet to be determined," she says. "I guess this is something we've been talking about for a long time and as long as the pandemic continues in countries, as long as there is transmission there are opportunities for new variants to arrive and this is what has happened.

"This is a particularly worrying one because it has a lot of mutations including mutations that look like it will make it more infectious and mutations that impact on how well vaccines work or how well people are protected after they've had an infection."

Dr Wiles has called on the Government to be flexible in its decision-making, saying if it's concluded Omicron is more dangerous than Delta we will need to take appropriate measures to stop it from establishing in New Zealand. 

"What we need to remember is we need to be flexible," Wiles tells Newshub. "Already the Government has started talking about reducing the time people spend in MIQ and getting rid of MIQ altogether. 

"Depending on how this variant develops that might have to be looked at again. 

"Look, we are in a pandemic and the virus is evolving so our response has to evolve. We are doing an incredible job actually at keeping our case numbers down, keeping our death rate down and that is exactly what we want to continue to do, so we are going to have to wait and see what the deal is with this and it's going to take a few months potentially a little longer than that until all the information is gathered."

With the new variant only identified in South Africa on Tuesday, Dr Wiles says even though the situation is evolving rapidly, it is too soon to say what New Zealand should be doing.  

"At the moment, everything is moving very fast," she says. "This variant was only identified on Tuesday. By Thursday the South Africans [scientists] had told their Government and it was important enough that the rest of the world needed to know so they did a big media conference. So it's a situation that is moving very fast. 

"Already the variant has been identified in samples in other countries. Some of those countries have no links to travel to southern Africa, so we don't know how widespread this variant is around the world and it's going to take a little bit of time to understand if it's more infectious than Delta. 

"Will it replace Delta because this is what we need to know and what we really need to know is how it affects people that have been vaccinated or have had the infection before and we will need to respond according to the data that comes out?

"So I think it's too soon to be saying what we will do. But what has served us well so far is to keep transmission low, to keep our death rates low and that is what we should be aiming to do going forward."

New Zealand on Saturday joined another of other countries in making the decision to put a number of southern African countries onto the "very high risk" country list in a bid to contain the spread of Omicron. 

COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said from 11:59pm on Sunday only New Zealand citizens from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique will be able to come to the country.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand is well prepared for the discovery of new coronavirus variants that may be resistant to vaccines.  

"All of our planning around COVID, we have built into it the possibility of variants in the future," Ardern says.

"That is why we are maintaining levels of public health protections. It's why we've maintained requirements at our border."