A dangerous new coronavirus variant has been discovered in Aotearoa's nearest neighbour, Australia, as New Zealand prepares to remove lockdown and travel restrictions with the traffic signals system this week.
Omicron was first discovered in South Africa last month, and the World Health Organisation has classified it as a variant of concern due to changes that let it spread more swiftly.
The Ministry of Health is keeping an eye on the situation.
Malaghan Institute for Medical Research head and immunologist Professor Graham Le Gros says the issue is that some people believe Omicron is more capable of infecting people than the Delta virus, making it a dangerous arrogant virus.
“The truth at the moment is no one in the world really knows very much about this virus but we're very hopeful that the vaccines, Pfizer, the Moderna, AstraZeneca, will still work against it,” he says.
Māori and Pasifika to be cautious
Le Gros expresses his deep concern about the Omicron virus's potential impact on Māori and Pasifika communities while applauding the government's swift response to secure the borders.
“How can we get a new vaccine if that's needed or new therapies in place because we're going to have to move quickly on this one if it spreads.”
Booster shots encouraged
Le Gros advises everyone to obtain their booster shots to better defend their immune systems to fight the new virus.
“Please, I recommend most strongly once you become eligible, get your booster shot. You'll keep yourself safe and keep the community safe. It’s a three-shot vaccine, it seems. So let's make it work and crush that virus.”
The most significant difference, according to Le Gros, is that Omicron does not require a large number of particles to travel from one person to another and attaches securely to receptors to enter the cell.
“It just spreads like wildfire, so we have to be extra careful and we actually have to make sure we get everyone vaccinated because that's our only protection against this virus - our only protection.”
According to Le Gros, South Africa has a large number of HIV-positive persons who are immune-suppressed, which means they may cook the virus and cannot get rid of it even when vaccinated, allowing it to mutate.
“So really that’s the problem with South Africa in general ... there's so many poor people, they’re stuck in immunosuppression that can create new variants.”