Prime minister Scott Morrison has called a rapid national cabinet meeting for state and territory leaders and health officials to discuss the threat posed by the new Omicron coronavirus variant.
It follows NSW and Victorian introducing 72-hour isolation requirements for all fully vaccinated international arrivals over the weekend, with at least one state considering further quarantine for all arrivals.
Federal Health minister Greg Hunt on Saturday announced a two-week ban on non-Australian citizens arriving from South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique.
The World Health Organisation classified the new lineage of the virus a “variant of concern” on Saturday amid Omicron showing a large number of mutations.
“Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other variants of concern” the WHO said in a statement.
“The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa.”
WHO convened an expert group meeting on Friday following the variant first being identified in Botswana.
The variant, which contains dozens of changes to the virus spike protein that is the main target of the body’s immune responses, was also detected in South African travellers to Hong Kong.
Australia recorded its first two cases of the variant on Sunday in two fully vaccinated travellers who arrived from southern Africa the night prior.
End COVID For All campaign spokesperson Tim Costello said this was another example of the virus reminding human populations that they were all connected.
“We are still establishing a clear understanding of this variant but it should shake off any sense of complacency that we have defeated COVID-19,” Costello said.
“COVID is a constantly evolving challenge. There is no place for false comfort or triumphalism.
“COVID doesn’t end for anyone until it ends for everyone,” he said.
Scientists who have examined the new variant have expressed concern that it has potential to evade infection-blocking antibodies.
Researchers are working to understand if it can sneak past the immune responses brought about by COVID vaccines, and whether the variant has the capacity to cause more severe illness than other known lineages.
Costello said widespread vaccination was the best thing the global community could do, and urged Australia’s government to commit what he said was a fairer share of financial contributions through the COVAX vaccine-sharing scheme.
“Vaccines reduce transmission, as well as minimising the risk of severe illness,” Costello said.
“The current vaccination rates in poor countries is dire, and the Australian government must do more.
“Australia can and must make an additional $250 million to COVAX, the international vaccine program, along with a further $50 million towards addressing vaccine hesitancy.”