Australia has no plans to restrict flights from South Africa, despite the emergence of a new variant of Covid-19 which has prompted the UK to shut its borders to the country.
As the World Health Organisation called an urgent meeting to discuss the new variant detected in South Africa, Australia’s health minister, Greg Hunt, said on Friday that officials were assessing the threat posed by the strain and would not yet introduce restrictions on arrivals from southern Africa.
While Australia would “be able to act quickly if there’s advice”, Hunt told media the country’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, had advised him there was “no basis for change” in border arrangements.
The UK on Friday announced it would ban flights from southern parts of Africa amid concern about the emerging B.1.1.529 variant, but Hunt said international health authorities were still gathering information about it.
“The world is learning and looking [at] the strain,” he said. He had been briefed by both Kelly and the secretary of the department of health, Brendan Murphy, on Friday morning.
“At this stage they are gathering information [but] we’re flexible and if the medical advice is we need to change then we won’t hesitate,” Hunt said.
He said a repatriation flight from South Africa had arrived in Australia last week and the returnees had been in quarantine at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory. He was not aware of any cases of the new strain being detected in Australia.
It comes as Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said in a question-and-answer livestream on Friday that information about the strain was still emerging.
“What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” she said.
The emergence of a new strain is by no means a first. Another variant, C.1.2, was also detected in South Africa earlier this year, but has not proven as infectious as the more common Delta strain.
However, the B.1.1.529 variant has raised concerns in the international community due to the “extremely high number” of mutations, which some researchers fear could help the virus evade immunity.
Whether or not the strain is classified a variant of concern by the WHO, its emergence has drawn renewed attention to efforts to help increase global vaccination rates.
South Africa’s vaccination rate is only about 24% while in neighbouring Botswana, where the strain has also been detected, only one in five people have been vaccinated.
Prof Catherine Bennett, an epidemiologist from the University of Deakin, said the rest of the world needed to do more to increase global vaccination rates.
“Australia has now contributed 9m doses to partners in the region, some to the Covax program, some to funding, but it isn’t enough,” she said.
While Australia was “rightly” focused on our region, she said, low rates of vaccination across the globe remained a substantial problem.
“Vaccination rates like in Botswana really does leave you vulnerable,” Bennett said.
“It doesn’t have to be a super-infectious strain of the virus, it just has to get into places with those low vaccination rates. We don’t know what will happen with this, it might fizzle out and the vaccine might work just as well. But if any of those things isn’t quite right, you are putting yourself in a position where the virus might just make a bit of a leap in its evolutionary development.”
On Friday Hunt defended international efforts for developing countries, saying there had been “extraordinarily high” rates of vaccination in some of those countries.
“Our spare vaccines are being provided but beyond that we’re also working directly through the Covax program,” he said.
“South Africa is doing everything it can to encourage vaccination within its population and to continue to expand its distribution network, but there are different challenges in different countries.”