Dec 23, 2021: An update from Australia's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, about the new Omicron variant of concern and the importance of the booster program.

Frequently asked questions:

Does the COVID-19 vaccination work in protecting against the Omicron variant?

The UK government has released a report comparing an observational study of the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccination against Omicron in the UK population. Although the study is small, the findings included:

  • Vaccine effectiveness against Omicron infection was 30-40% after two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

  • Following a booster vaccine dose, effectiveness increased to 70-80%.

Several studies have also been released this week that suggest a particular response in our immune system, in previously infected and most likely vaccinated individuals, should still be effective against Omicron. What this suggests is that whilst Omicron infection rates will likely increase, the number of people requiring hospital treatment may not follow this trend.

The initial research on Omicron is promising and there is a sign that whilst

more infectious, the impact on individuals and communities may be limited. But more time is needed to better understand how Omicron behaves and how unwell the people who are infected become.

Dr Jamie Phillips MB ChB DIMC RCS(Edin) MRCGP(UK) FACRRM(EM)

Update on the response from the Australian government

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has stated that the Covid-19 Omicron variant is ‘less severe’ than first thought.

“The severity of this virus, so far, is not presenting to be worse than what happened with Delta,” he said.

The Department of Health Secretary Dr Brendan Murphy said that, “information out of South Africa suggests that we‘re not seeing a high incidence of hospitalisation and severe disease.”

“But we still need to learn more, we have to get information from other countries who now have significant clusters of this virus and we’re still doing lab tests on this variant.”

“There is a suggestion that the vaccines will benefit from a booster to protect against the strain,” he said.

“We don’t know how it will spread in Australia, but we do know that it is here and it’s just likely to spread but we don’t need to panic, we just need to study it more and very importantly, make sure we get boosters.”

“What we’ve seen across this country now with the transmission in Victoria and New South Wales is very low rates of hospitalisation and severe disease in the vaccinated population.”

What is Omicron?

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 was first reported to the World Health Organisation on 24 November 2021. The variant was first detected in South Africa, and is the fifth strain of COVID-19 to be declared a variant of concern.

What are the symptoms?

No information has been published yet to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants. There is no evidence to date that indicates that the variant causes more severe or unusual effects.

Why is this variant concerning?

The Omicron variant appears to have a large number of mutations in the coronavirus’ spike protein, which may affect how easily it is transmitted to people.

The most effective steps individuals can take to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus is to keep a physical distance of at least 1 metre from others; wear a well-fitting mask; open windows to improve ventilation; avoid poorly ventilated or crowded spaces; keep hands clean; cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue; and get vaccinated.

Find out more information on vaccine efficiency in relation to the Omicron variant here.

Information sourced from:

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Authored by: Dr Jamie Phillips MB ChB DIMC RCS(Edin) MRCGP(UK) FACRRM(EM)

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