Australia has brought in travel bans and new quarantine orders because of concerns about the new omicron COVID-19 variant first reported in southern Africa. Two cases have been discovered in travelers arriving in Australia.
Urgent testing is underway to determine whether passengers infected with COVID-19 who have arrived in Sydney from southern Africa are carrying the omicron variant.
The travelers have been taken to so-called Special Health Accommodation where they will spend 14 days in quarantine.
The World Health Organization has declared omicron a "variant of concern" as researchers work to establish whether it is more infectious than other strains.
Australia has moved quickly to impose strict border controls. Noncitizens from nine southern African countries are banned. They are South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini -- formerly known as Swaziland, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique.
Australian citizens and their families who have spent time in those countries during the past two weeks must go into isolation on their return home. Passengers arriving from all other countries would be required to isolate for 72 hours on arrival into the states of New South Wales and Victoria, which have seen Australia’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks this year.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said a cautious approach is needed.
“The Australian government will be implementing additional precautionary border security measures in order to protect Australians whilst more is learnt about the nature and impact of the omicron variant of concern. There are currently no known cases of the omicron variant in Australia,” he said.
Health authorities in New South Wales have said that the new variant is not well understood and warned that it may be already in Australia.
The omicron variant has been detected in Belgium, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy and the United Kingdom.
It is less than a month since New South Wales and Victoria - Australia’s most populous states - removed all quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated international arrivals.
Australia has recorded 206,000 COVID-19 cases and almost 2,000 deaths since the pandemic began. Currently 536 patients need hospital care, according to the Health Department.
More than 85% of the eligible Australian population is fully vaccinated.