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'We're prepared': Australia on alert for virus variant that's learned to evade vaccine

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The federal health minister insists Australia is well prepared should a new COVID-19 variant, which has experts alarmed, arrive in Australia.

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South African scientists have detected a new variant in the country, dubbed the Nu strain, which has double the number of mutations of the Delta variant.

Overseas health officials have warned the Nu variant is likely to evade the immune response from vaccinations.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has held meetings on the variant with chief medical officer Paul Kelly and health department secretary Brendan Murphy.

No changes will be made to flights between Australia and South Africa following the variant’s discovery.

Hunt said the variant’s emergence would not mean an immediate change to the national reopening plan, but the response would be swift should advice change.

“We’ve always been flexible, and if the medical advice is that we need to change, we won’t hesitate,” Hunt told reporters in Sydney.

Hunt said Australia’s high vaccination levels had put Australia in a much better position to handle new variants than when Delta emerged earlier this year.

Currently, more than 86 per cent of the national population over 16 is fully vaccinated and 92.1 per cent have had a first dose.

“The advice remains that the broad-spectrum nature of the vaccines is likely to cover emerging variants, and that’s been the case with Delta and that’s been the case with other variants that have emerged,” Hunt said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said while there were many COVID-19 variants that had been detected, the situation was being watched closely.

“We monitor all of these variants, we note the responses that are made by other countries and we consider those in real time,” Morrison told reporters in Adelaide.

It comes as letters will be mailed to every Australian household before Christmas urging people to get their COVID-19 booster shot.

More than 370,000 people have received their booster shot since they were approved by the medical regulator, but more than 500,000 have been eligible.

However, Hunt said the booster program was ahead of schedule and exceeding expectations.

“Australians do trust the vaccination program. Yes, there’s been the noise of a fringe, but they’re losing the battle,” he said.

“The vaccinators are winning the battle, and I am very hopeful that this early high level of booster acceptance will continue right through the program.”

On Friday, there were 1362 new COVID-19 cases in Victoria, with seven deaths reported.

Meanwhile, in NSW there were 261 infections, with no fatalities.

The UK Health Security Agency said that the variant – called B.1.1.529 – has a spike protein that was dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that COVID-19 vaccines are based on.

It has mutations that are likely to evade the immune response generated by prior infection and vaccination, and also mutations associated with increased infectivity.

Lab studies are needed to assess the likelihood of the mutations resulting in greatly reduced vaccine efficacy, scientists said.

Earlier on Thursday, South African scientists said they had detected the new COVID-19 variant in small numbers and were working to understand its potential implications.

The variant has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, which are concerning because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, the scientists told reporters at a news conference.

The variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong.

The UK Health Security Agency said that no cases of the variant had been detected in Britain and they were in contact with South African colleagues over their data.

As a result of the infections, Britain will place South Africa under red list travel restrictions, The Guardian reported on Thursday.

The variant posed “a potentially significant threat to the vaccine program which we have to protect at all costs,” Whitehall sources were quoted as saying in the report.

Israel announced on Thursday it was barring its citizens from travelling to southern Africa and banning the entry of foreigners from the region.

South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini were added to Israel’s “red”, or highest-risk, travel list that reflects coronavirus infection rates overseas.

Israelis returning home from those countries would be required to spend between seven and 14 days in a quarantine hotel after arrival.

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