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Experts urge caution on Omicron

Burnet Institute

29 November, 2021

Allowing the Omicron variant to run its course in the community in the expectation that it will prove to be less virulent than Delta would be a serious mistake, Burnet Institute Deputy Director, Associate Professor David Anderson has warned.

“That is wishful thinking of the highest order, a terrible, terrible idea,” Associate Professor Anderson told ABC Radio’s PM program. “There is absolutely no evidence that it’s less virulent.

“There’s not the evolutionary pressure there would be with flu, for example. Flus do tend over time to eventually get less virulent, but we’re not seeing that yet, and it could take decades. We’re just not that lucky, I don’t think."

Burnet Honorary Principal Research Fellow, Professor Mike Toole told PM that the emergence of Omicron comes as no surprise.

“We knew this was coming, all of this was so predictable,” Professor Toole said. “All viruses mutate."

“Sometimes they just mutate a little bit and they just peter out, but sometimes, and this is the fifth time, we’ve got a ‘variant of concern’ that may outcompete the others.”

Professor Toole said the only absolute known about Omicron at the moment is the number of mutations on the surface spike protein – 32.

“That’s more than double or triple the number for Delta, and it includes a lot of mutations that were on other variants, but we’ve never seen them all together on one virus, so we don’t really know the overall impact that will have.”

Professor Toole said it’s too early to say whether Omicron is less severe than Delta.

“We have clear data from South Africa, from the Ministry of Health that the number of new hospital admissions for COVID has tripled in two weeks,” he said.

“That’s just in the Gauteng Province, which is where this variant has been circulating that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria.”

Associate Professor Anderson believes Australia needs to maintain a vaccines-plus strategy, which includes a focus on safe indoor air ventilation, the use of respirators and masks, and the reinstatement of broad quarantine controls.

“Selective border controls are not the way to go,” he said. “Same mistake we made with China in early 2020. We can’t let it rip and then think, ‘Oh that was a mistake’.

“I think 14-day quarantine would be the most appropriate. I do understand the pressure of people want to get home for Christmas, and there may be too many people already booked to come into Australia.

“We need people to just be careful and take that precautionary principle so that we don’t give up the hard-won gains.”

Contact Details

For more information in relation to this news article, please contact:

Associate Professor David Anderson

Deputy Director (Partnerships), Burnet Institute; Chief Scientific Officer, Burnet Diagnostics Initiative

Telephone

+61392822239

Email

david.anderson@burnet.edu.au

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