With the emergence of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant, Burnet Institute Director and CEO, Professor Brendan Crabb AC argues Australia’s primary responsibility should be to support global vaccine equity in an interview with host, Rachel Mealey on ABC Radio’s The World Today.
Rachel Mealey: A newly identified COVID variant is causing growing concern across the world. It’s been officially named (Omicron) … and it’s the most heavily mutated version of the virus that’s been discovered so far. And most cases of the strain have appeared in Southern Africa. Professor Brendan Crabb is a microbiologist and the Chief Executive Officer at the Burnet Institute.
Brendan Crabb: We don’t know a lot, it’s early days, and certainly not time to press the panic button. But it is extremely concerning on the face of it. (They are) small numbers, we’re seeing a new variant arising in three countries, but mainly in South Africa that looks like it’s out competing the Delta variant, and it has a lot of mutations in it that’s acquired in one burst, and on the face of it those mutations look worrying.
We don’t know yet whether this is going to be in inverted commas, ‘the new delta’, but it’s a really big wake up call, that’s for sure.
RM: You say the mutations look worrying. They’ve occurred on the spike protein, can you explain what that means about the efficacy of vaccines?
BC: Well, for the moment, we don’t know the answer to this. But the spike protein is, of course, what is on the outside of the virus. It’s what is in the vaccines. We generate antibodies and immunity to the spike protein when we get vaccinated. And we hope that that recognises the virus, and it does recognise the virus when we get infected. What we worry about are mutations in the spike protein that arise through natural Darwinian evolution, that give resistance to the vaccine or to our pre-existing immunity. Now, we don’t know how well these mutations will lead to vaccine escape. But they are likely to, to some extent that would be expected. I mean, the likelihood of it happening is basically 100 percent. Somewhere in the world at some stage new variants like this will arise. So we’ve just got to keep an eye out as to the degree to which that’s happening here. It’s not the biggest concern.
The emergence of the Nu #COVID-19 variant from southern Africa is concerning and demands smart border controls and effective quarantine along with an ongoing ‘vaccines plus’ strategy – masks, clean air, testing and tracing, @CrabbBrendan tells @PatsKarvelas @abcnews @abcmelbourne pic.twitter.com/5HihmTCzlK
– Burnet Institute (@BurnetInstitute) November 26, 2021
The biggest concern is how well this virus spreads. The Delta variant, for example, isn’t good at immune escape, but it’s brilliant at transmitting much better than the original viruses. So there’s some things to be worked out.
But on the face of it, these mutations in the spike protein could avoid immunity to some degree – a vaccine induced immunity – and could allow the virus to grow quicker.
RM: Do we know yet if the new strain is more virulent than previous strains of the virus?
BC: We don’t know if this new variant is more virulent, we don’t know a lot about it. And the alarm bells that are ringing today could turn out to be a false alarm based on the small numbers. There’s a thing called a founder effect, so when the numbers are very small, you can be looking at something that looks very worrying. But as the numbers get bigger is less so. But look, at the moment, it does look like a virus, we know it’s a virus that has gained a lot of mutations, suddenly. This is not normal. To gain a lot of mutations, suddenly, it’s probably arisen in a chronically infected immunocompromised person, which is how a few others have happened in the past.
RM: This is all very scary. What’s your advice for Australians?
BC: The immediate response is that we do need to maintain some form of border control into the future. And that’s not preventing everyone from coming into the country. But for the medium term, at least, if not a bit longer term, we’re going to need a traffic light system at our borders that does require some people to quarantine if they’re from a ‘red zone’ in inverted commas, which is the phrase that the UK use and have just reinstated that for South African travelers.
But the much more important thing that Australia can do is get even more serious about vaccinating the world. This is happening because there’s a gross vaccine inequity in the world. We’ve seen in our region, Papua New Guinea, less than four percent of its citizens vaccinated, but not much better in the whole of the African continent, for example.
Australia thinks we’re going to support the region and we’ve been very generous, the Australian Government’s trained people in supporting the region, but we actually have to support the whole world.
It’s a certainty that we get new variants. I think we’re asleep at the wheel, to an extent – the world is asleep at the wheel to this reality, and we have to wake up and get numbers down everywhere, not just think that we’ve got it under control in our region, it’s set and forget – it’s not.
RM: Professor Brendan Crabb, thanks very much for joining The World Today.