Australia has no plans to restrict flights from South Africa despite the fact that a new variant of Covid 19 has caused the UK to shut its borders to the country.
Australia s health minister Greg Hunt said on Friday that officials were assessing the threat posed by the strain and would not introduce restrictions on arrivals from southern Africa, as the World Health Organisation called for an urgent meeting to discuss the new variant detected in South Africa.
Australia would be able to act swiftly if there was advice from Hunt, the country's chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, had advised him that there was no basis for change in border arrangements.
The UK banned flights from southern parts of Africa on Friday because of concerns about the emerging B. Hunt said international health authorities were still gathering information about it, despite the 529 variant.
He said that the world is learning and looking at the strain. He was briefed by Kelly and the secretary of health, Brendan Murphy, on Friday morning.
At this stage they are gathering information but they are flexible, and if the medical advice is we need to change then we won't hesitate, Hunt said.
He said a repatriation flight from South Africa had arrived in Australia last week and the returnees had been in quarantine at Howard Springs in the Northern Territory. He was not aware of any cases of the new strain being detected in Australia.
It comes as Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO's technical lead on Covid 19, said in a livestream on Friday that information about the strain was still emerging.
This variant has a large number of mutations, and we know that this variant has a large number of mutations. She said that it can have an impact on how the virus behaves when you have so many mutations.
The emergence of a new strain is by no means a first. Another variant, C. 1.2, was detected in South Africa earlier this year, but has not proven as infectious as the more common Delta strain.
The 529 variant has raised concerns in the international community because of the high number of mutations that some researchers fear could help the virus evade immunity.
Its emergence has drawn renewed attention to efforts to increase global vaccination rates, regardless of whether or not the strain is classified as a variant of concern by the WHO.
South Africa's vaccination rate is only about 24%, while in Botswana, where the strain has also been detected, only one in five people have been vaccinated.
Dr Catherine Bennett, an epidemiologist from the University of Deakin, said that the rest of the world needed to do more to increase global vaccination rates.
Australia has now contributed 9 m doses to partners in the region, some to the Covax program, some to funding, but it isn't enough, she said.
She said that Australia was focused on our region and that there was a problem with low vaccination rates across the globe.
Vaccination rates like in Botswana can leave you vulnerable, Bennett said.
It doesn't have to be a super-infectious strain of the virus, it just has to get into places with low vaccination rates. We don't know what will happen with this, it might fizzle out and the vaccine might work just as well. If any of those things isn't quite right, you are putting yourself in a position where the virus might make a leap in its evolutionary development. On Friday Hunt defended international efforts for developing countries, saying there had been extraordinarily high rates of vaccination in some of those countries.
He said that our spare vaccines are being provided, but we are also working directly through the Covax program.
South Africa is doing everything possible to promote vaccination within its population and expand its distribution network, but there are different challenges in different countries.