No evidence Omicron is deadlier, Australia health chief says as count edges higher

Australia has recorded seven cases of the Omicron variant. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - There is no indication that the new Omicron coronavirus variant is more deadly than other strains, Australia's chief medical officer Paul Kelly said in a recorded message on Thursday (Dec 2).

In fact, the opposite may be true, he said.

"Of the over 300 cases that have now been diagnosed in many countries, they have all been very mild or, in fact, had no symptoms at all," Professor Kelly said.

Australia has recorded seven cases of the Omicron variant, with two of the infected individuals spending time in the community. Six of those cases have been in New South Wales, the country's most populous state.

Many of the hundreds of Omicron infections appearing around the world are in inoculated individuals, Prof Kelly said.

Still, there is no evidence to suggest that existing Covid-19 vaccines do not work against the latest variant of concern.

"Many of the cases that have been diagnosed in many countries around the world, from travellers almost exclusively from southern Africa, have been doubly vaccinated," Prof Kelly said.

"But, again, they have not had severe disease. So we need to wait and watch and gather more information."

Most global travel is being undertaken by vaccinated individuals, who were able to travel quarantine-free to a range of countries prior to the emergence of Omicron.

The country's most populous state, New South Wales, reported its seventh case of the variant, a person who arrived on Nov 23 from Doha, Qatar, and noted that the person had not been in southern Africa, suggesting the virus was transmitted on the flight.

While the Australian federal government has urged states to avoid a return to the stop-start lockdowns that have defined the country's virus response, health authorities urged caution until they knew more about Omicron's infectiousness and virulence.

"We know this virus is dangerous, it does come out in some different forms," New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard told reporters on Thursday. "Don't take it lightly."

The state's capital, Sydney, Australia's largest city, came out of nearly four months of lockdown to contain a Delta outbreak in early October and has been gradually easing curbs as vaccination rates have risen.

But other state governments have been upping their restrictions on interstate arrivals. South Australia, which has no recorded Omicron cases, said it would make all people arriving from New South Wales take a Covid-19 test.

The tourism-friendly island state of Tasmania said this week it would ban most overseas arrivals, at odds with federal government moves to allow vaccinated Australians entry into the country if they undertake home quarantine.

Australia has delayed reopening plans and several countries have now tightened rules for travellers to help stem the spread of the new variant.

Australia's closed international border and tough restrictions on domestic movement helped it avoid the high numbers of Covid-19 deaths recorded in many other countries, with about 212,000 cases and 2,000 deaths.

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