Epidemiologists concerned after COVID-19 testing ditched, surveys delayed just as new variant arrives

A new COVID-19 variant has been detected at the border called BQ.1, with three cases picked up before arrival testing was scrapped last week.

It comes as case numbers remain fairly steady after COVID measures were dropped 10 days ago.

Bustling streets and maskless faces. People aren't panicking about new variants.

"Don't worry bout it, there's other things to worry about in your life," one person told Newshub.

"I just don't look at the news and if you don't know you don't care," another added.

Epidemiologists certainly do care and they're keeping a close eye on Omicron's sub-variant BQ.1.1.

"It's able to evade some of our existing immunity, otherwise it wouldn't even arrive here, and it is causing some concern overseas along with some other variants," said Professor Michael Baker.

But finding them at the border is harder than ever after arrival tests were ditched.

"That sort of power we have to detect what's happening has really been decreased by this change," warned COVID-19 modeller David Welch.

"It's troubling for our ability to predict what's going to happen in the next few weeks."

And even if incoming travellers do opt to test on arrival their results are not separated out.

"We don't know when we sequence them whether the new variant is circulating," Welch said.

To find out how many Kiwis have already had the virus, infection, prevalance and seroprevalence surveys were announced by the Government in July. But two months later they're nowhere to be seen.

"It's really disappointing to see this," Welch said.

The Ministry of Health told Newshub the surveys are delayed due to current resourcing, but that they remain a priority and should be in place in the coming weeks. Meanwhile experts are now asking for a better COVID plan for future waves.

"This might mean a bit more mask-wearing, a bit more testing, a few other precautions that are sensible and not going to be disruptive," said Prof Baker.

But with Kiwis clearly embracing the mask-free life it could be hard to revert. And although we might be done with COVID, it's too soon to say if COVID's done with us.