Covid-19: Government 'confident' new Omicron Covid variant hasn't entered NZ

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins announces the original plan to reopen New Zealand to the world in 2022, in November. (First published November 24)

The Government is “confident” the new Omicron Covid variant hasn't entered New Zealand, according to Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.

His reassurance came as nine southern African countries were added to the “very high-risk countries list” following public health advice around the newly discovered variant.

Hipkins said an assessment was carried out Saturday afternoon to assess emerging evidence and if the variant posed any risk to New Zealand.

“The Government is taking a precautionary approach in treating South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique as very high-risk countries to reduce the chance of Omicron entering New Zealand,” Hipkins said.

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Only New Zealand citizens from these countries will be able to enter the country from11:59 pm Sunday and would be required to stay in managed isolation for a full 14 day period and undergo testing, he said.

The extended MIQ requirement would also apply to those already in transit from these countries, the minister said.

“I am also assured by the fact that the numbers of travellers we get from each of these countries is low.”

On Saturday, a World Health Organisation (WHO) advisory panel classified the new Covid-19 variant first detected in South Africa as a “highly transmissible virus of concern” and named it Omicron' under its Greek-letter system.

This marks the first time in months that WHO has classified a Covid-19 variant as such. The Delta variant, which has become the world's most prevalent, is in the same category.

Omicron has since been detected in Belgium, Israel, Botswana and Hong Kong. The United Kingdom closed its borders to southern Africa, followed by other countries in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia.

The Omicron variant was still “very much in its infancy” and Hipkins was confident it hasn’t entered New Zealand, with whole-genome sequencing of several hundred border cases identified in recent months all being the Delta variant.

“Adding these countries to the very high-risk country register is an appropriate and proportionate measure as more evidence is gathered globally on the Omicron variant."

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says the Government is taking a precautionary approach.
Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins says the Government is taking a precautionary approach.

Discussions about the new variant were also held with health officials in Australia, he said.

Institute of Environmental Science and Research principal scientist of genomics Professor Mike Bunce said there was only limited information on Omicron and “lots of speculation.”

All other variants of concern had found their way to the New Zealand border and Omicron would also show up at some point, he said.

The University of Auckland Centre for Computational Evolution’s Dr David Welch said it was likely Omicron had been circulating South Africa for some time for it to have reached the current outbreak size.

“It is likely there is local spread in many regions already, if only at low levels currently,” Welch said.

Bunce said it was “too early to say” just how more transmissible Omicron was than the Delta variant.

“The fact that Omicron has been detected on a background of Delta raises a flag.”

To determine how transmissible Omicron was relative to Delta it would require more testing to detect the variant and good epidemiology in areas where both Delta and Omicron were circulating, he said.

Estimates of Omicron's R number - the rating of a disease's ability to spread - would likely appear soon, with this number dictating the type of response countries will need to make to control this variant, Bunce said.

A new coronavirus variant has been detected in South Africa.
Jerome Delay/AP
A new coronavirus variant has been detected in South Africa.

With Aotearoa planning to start reopening from early next year, it was “prudent to keep a closer eye” on the border, he said.

Sequencing the genomes of all border cases and retaining the MIQ system for international arrivals would give health officials options in controlling entry into the country, he said.

“I suspect there may be changes to the border in response to Omicron.”

Research Director for the School of Veterinary Science at Massey University professor Nigel French said current vaccines would “afford valuable protection” against new strains and could be “just as effective” against Omicron.

“Evidence suggests that vaccination, particularly if you have had two or more shots, will produce antibodies that will neutralise new variants,” French said.