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Australia Detects First Omicron Variant Infection, 2 Residents Come from South Africa

Australian Health officials said they had detected the Omicron strain of coronavirus for the first time in two passengers tested after flying from South Africa to Sydney.

Launching Al Jazeera, health authorities in the eastern state of New South Wales said on Sunday (11/28/2021) urgent genomic testing was carried out and confirmed the new strain was present in two people who landed in Sydney on Saturday (11/27/2021).

The two passengers were from southern Africa and arrived in Australia on a Qatar Airways flight via Doha, NSW Health said in a statement.

They tested positive for COVID shortly after arriving and were then analyzed to find out if they were infected with the Omicron strain, which has a very high spike protein mutation.

“The two positive cases that did not show symptoms were isolated in special health facilities. Both people have been fully vaccinated,” said NSW Health.

Another 12 passengers from South Africa on the same flight did not test positive for COVID but have been placed in quarantine.

Health authorities added that some 260 passengers and crew on the plane had also been ordered to be isolated.

The plane with the infected passengers landed on the same day Australia announced a ban on flights from nine South African countries including South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The World Health Organization has listed Omicron as a variant of concern (VOC) and said it could take several weeks to find out if there were any significant changes in transmission, severity, or implications for COVID vaccines, tests, and treatments.

The findings of the Omicron variant come just a month after Australia lifted a ban on citizens traveling abroad without a permit, with the country's borders also set to open to skilled workers and international students by the end of the year.

After more than 18 months of strict borders, fully vaccinated Australian citizens no longer have to seek permission to leave the country.

On March 20 last year, Australia introduced some of the world's toughest border restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

For nearly 600 days, countless international flights were stopped and travel abroad was restricted

It is unclear whether the new variant will lead to a return to stricter rules.

Speaking hours before confirmation that Omicron had arrived in Australia, New South Wales Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet appeared reluctant to commit to new restrictions.

"We need to learn to coexist with viruses and also coexist with the different types of viruses that will come our way," Perrottet said.

"The best thing we can do is get vaccinated and get booster shots," he added. "There are limits to what state and federal governments can do."

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