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Omicron variant: ATAGI reviewing Australia's booster timeline

Australians could have their COVID-19 booster shot timeline sped up amid concerns over a highly infectious new strain.

Chief medical officer Paul Kelly has assured Australians there is "no definite evidence" suggesting vaccines are less effective against the Omicron variant, emanating out of Africa since last week.

Australians fully vaccinated at least six months ago are currently eligible for a booster shot, but Health Minister Greg Hunt on Monday revealed the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation was reviewing that time frame.

"We will, as ever, allow them to act independently and continue to follow their advice," he told reporters.

"I wouldn't speculate on any timeframes. We've given them an open brief."

Mr Hunt said the government would "not hesitate" to take further steps, but insisted Australia's high vaccination rate placed it in a "vastly different position" to when the virus arrived in early 2020.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called a meeting of national cabinet leaders on Tuesday.

The National Security Committee was also meeting to consider whether Omicron will alter plans for international students and skilled migrants to return. Quarantine rules for returning travellers were also likely to be discussed.

Two passengers who arrived in Sydney on Saturday are confirmed to have been infected with the Omicron variant. NT authorities on Monday also confirmed a man at the Howard Springs facility had contracted the strain.

Booster shots could be expedited due to the Omicron variant. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Booster shots could be expedited due to the Omicron variant. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Professor Kelly said Omicron had quickly become the dominant strain in Africa, a sign it was transmitting "at least as well as Delta". He said Australians should be "alert but not alarmed" as more information came to light.

"Some reports out of South Africa are that it's mostly mild. Other information we have is that hospitalisation rates are increasing. So, we need to get further information there, and we are getting that information," he said.

But with Australia boasting a high vaccine uptake, Professor Kelly moved to head off concern Omicron could neuter the impact of COVID-19 vaccines.

"At the moment, we have no definite evidence, either clinical or laboratory or at the population level, that the vaccines are less effective against this virus. We have no evidence of that," he said.

"Pfizer and Moderna can move quickly, if that was to come to pass, to make a specific vaccine. That's a major advantage."

Professor Kelly described the prospect of a mild strain spreading, potentially increasing immunity against more deadly variants, as his "number one Christmas present".

"That would be certainly a very interesting change, and a positive one. But I just really say very clearly: we're not in that position yet to make that statement, that that's definitely how it's going to end up," he said.

"But [we] hope for the best and plan for other things."

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'Coward's way out'

Omicron emerged after repeated warnings that countries with low vaccination rates were fertile breeding grounds for COVID-19 variants.

World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in November labelled the booster rollouts in rich countries a "scandal", with Africa's vaccination rate mired at just 6 per cent.

Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi on Monday demanded Australia waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines in a bid to expedite delivery.

Senator Faruqi claimed the government had taken the "coward's way out" by stymying talks on the move, first proposed by South Africa and India a year ago.

But in an impassioned response, Foreign Minister Marise Payne flatly rejected the claim and stressed Australia had provided more than 9 million doses to neighbouring countries.

"You are spreading misinformation. I will not have Australia misrepresented in relation to our contribution to the international vaccine effort, and most particularly in our region," she said.

"The Pacific and south-east Asia ... [is] our backyard and the contributions that we are making in those countries are changing lives and saving lives."

Quarantine stoush

Labor has seized on the arrival of Omicron to reignite its calls for new purpose-built quarantine facilities, accusing the government of exposing Australians to a leaky hotel quarantine system.

National COVID-19 Co-ordination Commission Advisory Board commissioner Jane Halton called for additional facilities in October 2020, but Howard Springs remained Australia's only federally run quarantine.

Labor frontbencher Bill Shorten accused the Coalition of being "asleep at the wheel", saying it had ignored repeated alarm bells throughout the pandemic.

"What really frustrates me is that this government's constantly surprised, like every day's Groundhog Day with them," he told the ABC.

"If we're going to bring travellers, in and I really support Australians being able to come home, we need to have an effective quarantine system."

Repeatedly pressed on the issue by Labor in question time, Mr Morrison pointed to deals for quarantine hubs in Victoria, Queensland, and WA which were yet to be completed.

"[They will] be there not just in the near-term, but for the longer-term, to ensure those facilities are there to deal with other pandemics when they will inevitably come to this country," he said.

Ms Halton in June went public to announce she was "perplexed" the government had not implemented the recommendation. But an update to her review last month found the hotel quarantine system had improved through better infection controls and ventilation.

"With endemic COVID-19, control of the international border is no longer the principal mechanism for COVID-19 control and management in Australia," it read.

It called for a phase-out of quarantine for interstate travellers, urging states and territories to implement home quarantine where possible.

Onshore vaccine capability was also in Labor's sights, with opposition industry spokesman Ed Husic accusing the government of failing to deliver on its pledge to manufacture mRNA vaccines in Australia.

Industry Minister Angus Taylor claimed the federal government had invited market proposals for onshore production, and held conversations with Moderna's global CEO.

"We are working through that process thoroughly now. This is important for Australians and manufacturing and important part of ensuring we can control our own destiny," he said.

The Coalition has repeatedly stressed vaccine sovereignty as key to its pandemic response. That was dented in June by damaging advice against offering AstraZeneca, the only COVID-19 vaccine produced in Australia, to people aged under 60 where possible.

'Won't accept it'

Earlier, Mr Morrison pushed back against suggestions the national cabinet would sit for an "emergency meeting", saying state and territory leaders were simply being brought "up to speed" on the situation.

The Prime Minister said high vaccination meant Australia was shifting away from focusing on case numbers to managing the virus.

"It's about the severity of the illness that people have, and how the public hospital system in the health system is managing - and it's managing very strongly," he told Today.

"With this variant, we know it could be more transmissible, but we also know that it's proving to be less severe."

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce warned Australia could not afford to lurch between restrictions as new variants emerged.

"The economy won't work and society won't accept it if we just keep shutting the show down. So I think there will be a sort of attempt at sober approach to the assessment of what we're doing next," he said.

International travellers who had been to nine African countries were forced to undergo 14 days quarantine in the ACT and take a PCR test. International arrivals who had not been to those countries were forced into isolation until Wednesday morning.

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This story Omicron spread could see booster shots brought forward first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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