The new coronavirus variant believed to have originated in the UK has health authorities around the world on high alert and cancelling flights from the country.
But Australian health experts say the new strain, referred to as B117 lineage, is likely to already be widespread around the world so restricting flights from the UK would achieve little.
The fast-spreading variant is some 70 per cent more transmissible than the common strain of the virus and has quickly spread to become the UK's dominant source of infections.
It is now starting to sow chaos worldwide as it continues its global spread, with much of Europe, Japan and now Australia having confirmed cases of the variant.
At least five cases have been detected in Australia, including two in NSW, two in Victoria and one in South Australia, though all cases so far have been in hotel quarantine and have not spread to local transmission.
But while countries like China have halted all flights to the UK over the strain, and the United States required UK travellers to get tested before flying, Australia continues to repatriate citizens and residents from the UK, despite concerns.
Health Minister Greg Hunt on Monday said they would not be considering adopting a similar approach to the US, saying the 14-day hotel quarantining system was world-class and could keep Australians safe.
“Australia has arguably the most rigorous entry limitations in the world. There are a couple of jurisdictions that match that, but 14-day quarantine is not widely used in the rest of the world,” he told reporters.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly likewise cited Australia’s strong hotel quarantining program when defending the government’s decision to continue to allow returning travellers from the UK.
“Even if someone from the UK came with that virus … it would be controlled in the Australian context," he said.
"If you are a person, by yourself, coming into a hotel room for two weeks, you're not going to transmit out of that room.
"And in most of the cases, for most of the time, our quarantine system has been very safe and effective,” he added.
Following the emergence of a new variant of the coronavirus, numerous countries are suspending flights from the UK. Source: Getty Images
‘Trust in our system’
Australian health experts agree that while our border control and quarantine system isn’t perfect, we will remain better protected from the new variant than people in countries reporting high caseloads and with looser border restrictions.
Plus we should retain some perspective, they say: while the new strain is significant given its higher implications for spread, new variants of COVID-19 emerge all the time.
Melbourne-based emergency physician and former vice president of the Australian Medical Association Dr Stephen Parnis estimated COVID-19 would have been through millions of variants worldwide over the last 12 months.
“It’s constantly changing and evolving and the question is, how does that change the behaviour of the virus? The worst case scenario would be a mutation that results in seriously worse disease," he told SBS News. "That doesn’t appear to the case with this new UK variant.
“What it appears to be is that it becomes more easily transmissible and that’s of significance to all of us as we try and combat the spread.”
Dr Stephen Parnis guesses COVID-19 would have been through millions of variants worldwide over the last 12 months. Source: Dr Stephen Parnis
Public health physician Associate Professor Nathan Grills at the University of Melbourne says the decision by some nations’ governments to ban flights from the UK is an “overreaction” and likely to be politically motivated.
The strain is already likely to be in many countries, he says. The UK was just the first to detect it.
“The UK is one of the only countries that routinely and regularly tests a lot of their COVID cases for different strains because it’s useful to know what’s circulating," Dr Grills told SBS News.
“Australia does when it has a particular concern but it’s not a routine thing done in many countries. In reality this strain is probably already in many countries around the world. So the UK, by being more vigilant, has created the problem.
"I’m surprised other countries have responded in this way. You have to question whether shutting the borders is a political response to make it look like they’re keeping out a more dangerous virus.”
Australia’s clusters have led to ongoing tweaks in our quarantine system that have now made it extremely effective, says Dr Grills.
“Our objective is to keep the virus out full stop, at least until there’s a vaccine, and I don’t think it matters if it’s a more dangerous virus or a more infectious virus. Our objective remains the same.
“We’re getting to a point now where we can trust our hotel quarantine system," he said.
“Different variants are cropping up all the time and if we keep reacting to every new variant it’s not practical or tenable.
Dr Grills says the B117 lineage strain of coronavirus is already likely in many countries, it’s just the UK was the first to detect it. Source: Dr Nathan Grills.
“We need to focus our attention on the big issues around COVID and I don’t think the UK variant is one of them and it’s almost a distraction from the bigger picture I think. It won’t be the biggest part of the pandemic.
Dr Parnis believes we have “an obligation to bring Australians back to our shores” and says our duty is to make our quarantine system as effective as possible.
This is a multi-pronged approach, Dr Parnis and Dr Grills said. It entails the use of superior N95 masks over surgical masks, staff with the best possible training and experience, minimising interpersonal traffic and exposure, testing people before they fly, keeping a close watch on air crew and ensuring contract tracing is up to scratch in order to respond to any outbreaks that emerge.
Dr Parnis is optimistic about 2021.
“As a community, as a nation, as a planet we have learned an enormous amount about his pandemic," he said.
"We have endured significant hardship but I think when you do that you learn a great deal and what to savour as well.
"I think priorities for governments around the world will be highly influenced by this pandemic and some of it will be for the good.
"In the last 12 months we have accumulated wisdom and experience, not just debt. I think that will bode well for us.”
People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your jurisdiction's restrictions on gathering limits.
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