Good morning. I’m Dr Lucas De Toca and today we will be answering some of the questions you have been asking on social media. We are going to be talking about the Omicron variant, vaccines, and male fertility and how to make sure we can have a COVID Safe festive season even with unvaccinated friends and family and also how to protect unvaccinated friends and family members. As usual I’m joined by Linda, who is doing Auslan interpreting. Thank you, Linda. We are in the land of the Ngunnawal people. I also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land where you may be viewing from.
It is the last day of November which also means the last day of movember. So, I will get rid of this in the last next couple of days. It is a good reminder that men often don’t talk about when they are struggling. Men’s health often falls behind, and men tend to present less to health care. Even if November is over and some of the mo’s start to disappear, it is still a good opportunity to reach out. If you are a man you are struggling, please talk about it. There is nothing wrong with you and help is around you. Of course, also reach out if you’re not a man. Today’s shout out goes to the National Incident Centre. Which is the Department of Health’s emergency response centre, that has been continuously operating for over two years. It was actually activated for the bushfires at the end of 2019 and then went straight into activation for the pandemic and has continued to do so for over 2 years. They have been working incredibly hard and around the clock for over two years. Keeping us safe throughout the pandemic, for the bushfires and for other disasters. So, thank you colleagues at the National Incident Centre for all the work that you do.
The first question today unsurprisingly, is about the Omicron variant. There has been a lot of attention and a lot of concern in media and all around about this new strain of the virus. We have talked before that new strains of any virus regularly emerge, and we have had 13 named variants of COVID-19 or of SARS-CoV-2 which is the virus that causes COVID-19. Given enough time and enough circulating virus around a community, new strains will always emerge. It’s just how new viruses work, replication. Every time it makes a copy of itself, it can cause errors. Errors are mostly irrelevant but sometimes errors confer the virus some sort of advantage and then they get selected up like any evolutionary process, so then a new strain emerges. The majority of the strains that have come up have made no significant difference to the epidemic dynamics. But some of them do display some difference in how the virus behaves and then the World Health Organization classes them as a variant under consideration or a variant of concern. Variants under consideration or variants of interest are strains the WHO monitors to see if they have a significant impact on the epidemic in humans. Whereas variants of concern, variants or strains the WHO considers there is sufficient indication that they may change how the epidemic behaves and they deserve more attention. Omicron is the latest of those variants of concern. We have had alpha before or B117 that emerged much early in the pandemic and of course Delta or B16172. That we have been dealing with in Australia for some months now. It has been responsible for the majority of the outbreaks and the cases that we have had in our country. What do we know about Omicron? That is important thing we need to acknowledge. There is a lot that we don’t know yet and that is what is important to keep an open mind, make sure we stay across and be reassured that all the experts in the world are working as fast and hard as they can to collect all the information we have so that they can inform policy measures. There are three things that we are interested when we look at a new variant. We need to look at its transmissibility, whether it is infectious or less infectious, whether changes the way it transmits from person to person. We also need to look at its interaction with vaccines. Whether its variant is more or less susceptible to the available vaccines, then of course we need to look at severity. Which is whether if people get infected with new variant, is there any difference in whether the disease is more severe or less severe than with other variants? All those things can change. Ultimately, evolution has offsets and has to achieve a balance. It is almost impossible for a new strain to emerge that is more infectious, more virulent, causes more severe disease and escapes all vaccines. There are offset sometimes in how the virus mutates to evolve into new variants. There is a lot that we don’t know. We actually don’t have definitive answers to any of the three questions on whether it is more transmissible, whether it evades immunity including vaccines or whether it is more severe. We have some indications and we are hoping in the next couple of weeks will give us way more information as the entire world focuses its attention on this variant. We have early indications that it seems more transmissible. It spiked really quickly in countries in southern Africa particularly in South Africa where it was first identified and a shout out to colleagues in South Africa for the excellent genomics surveillance that allowed for the variant to be identified. It does seem that it is more transmissible, but we don’t know that definitively yet. We need to look at broader series of how their variant is spreading. On the question of immune escape, that is whether their variant gives a higher chance for people to get reinfected after they have already had the disease. So, they have antibodies from having been previously exposed to the disease or whether there is immune escape to a vaccine. Which is whether the new variant makes vaccines any less effective. Ultimately, it is all immunity, whether it’s through having had the disease before or through vaccines. There are similar immunologic mechanisms and it is whether this variant is more able to escape those processes. It also whether the vaccines or the previous immunity is less effective at preventing the infection or whether it’s less effective at preventing severe disease. The reality is that to date we don’t know any of that. All we know is that the vaccines we are using and the vaccines we are using in Australia, Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, have been effective against all previous variants. There was concern with Alpha, there was concern with Delta, but vaccines have actually been incredibly effective with all the new variants. So, we are hoping that that will be similar to this one, but it is really early to tell. With these things it is all is always really unusual that things are black and white. That vaccines are effective or not. There might be some changes in effectiveness and vaccine manufacturers and public health authorities all around the world are looking both at laboratory tests and how they can isolate the new variant to see how in vitro, how in the laboratory the immune response of the vaccine reacts to the variant, but also studies from the field. Looking at the cases we are observing how it is spreading between vaccinated and unvaccinated people. So again, it is too early to tell. The third one which is severity, again we don’t yet for Omicron to date, documented and reported. All have been mild, definitely the ones in South Africa, so if anything, we might have a hint that it may be less severe. But again, we can’t jump to conclusions and it is too early to tell. That is why governments, including the Australian Government have taken a precautionary approach to give us a bit more time to gather the information that we need and make informed choices about this variant and understanding the impact. It is not time to panic. There is a lot of things that we don’t know but there are a lot of things we know. which is the tools we have available, physical distancing, frequent hand washing, good ventilated spaces, masks where required, especially public transport or where you can’t keep good social distancing, getting tested if there are any symptoms and of course getting vaccinated. Still provide a lot of protection. There are still Delta outbreaks here. So, while we gather more information over the next couple of weeks, continue to practice those COVID Safe behaviours. Apologies in advance because with any of these issues in which science and scientific findings are scrutinised live on a 24-hour cycle. Things are going to change; information might get a bit confusing. So, keep coming back to health.gov.au where you can find the latest information on this.
Moving away from Omicron, we often get questions about whether the COVID-19 vaccines interact with male fertility, or whether they can cause issues with infertility or erectile dysfunction. There has been a lot of online commentary about that. The answer couldn’t be more categorical, that is not true. There is no indication whatsoever that any vaccine causes erectile dysfunction or issues with fertility in men. There has actually been studies that have looked at sperm counts and sperm mobility in vaccinated versus unvaccinated individuals with these vaccines and there is no difference between people. It is a rumour that is circulating online, it is understandably scary but there is no basis whatsoever for it. The Therapeutic Goods Administration does not approve vaccines that have not passed a rigorous assessment of both efficacy and effectiveness as well as safety. They would not approve a vaccine that causes infertility or dysfunction or erectile dysfunction in men. Be reassured, those rumours are not true. These vaccines do not cause male infertility or erectile dysfunction.
he third question is about whether we should have additional precautions to protect unvaccinated friends and family members as we move into the festive season. The reality is that people 12 years and above in Australia, the overwhelming majority are doubly vaccinated. We are over 86% of everyone 16 years and over has been fully vaccinated by now and there is a minority of people 12 years and over that haven’t received any vaccine, a really small minority. There is still a lot of people particularly 0 to 11 years old that at the moment cannot receive the vaccine until they get approved, if the TGA considers that it is appropriate for younger people than 12. There is still a significant proportion of our population that remains unvaccinated because they cannot receive a vaccine yet, primarily the children. So, it is important that we continue to practice COVID Safe behaviours especially moving into the festive season where there is going to be more mixing of people. So, wear masks indoors if required and follow jurisdictional advice. Make sure that you yourself are vaccinated. That is always the best protection, both for yourself but also for others around you, including those unvaccinated. If you have had your second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine six or more months ago, go and book a booster. The boosters are incredibly effective at dramatically increasing the strength and duration of your immune response against the virus. If for whatever reason you don’t want to wait for six months because you are going to travel, or you are concerned about a particular gathering. ATAGI, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation does accept that boosters can be given 5 months after the second dose in those circumstances. Talk to your GP or your pharmacist or the nurse in your primary care practice and consider getting your booster from 6 months when you had your second dose. Continue to monitor public health advice, and of course if you or anyone in your party has any symptoms, no matter how mild, please isolate and get a test. It is still our most powerful surveillance mechanism for hidden transmission in the community. Otherwise, enjoy the festive season because it has been a crazy couple of years, and we need a bit of respite. Catch up with your friends and family, get vaccinated if you have not yet and enjoy the season. We will keep you updated on any further changes and of course, as I said, we understand there is a lot of concern about Omicron. Keep checking health.gov.au where you will always find the most up-to-date and credible information on COVID-19 and the vaccines.
Thank you for watching today. See you next time.
Top 3 questions
- Do the current vaccines protect against the Omicron variant?
- Can the COVID-19 vaccine impact male fertility?
- Should unvaccinated family members or friends, including children, take extra precautions at festive events this year?