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Second COVID variant arrives in Australia

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The highly infectious South African variant of COVID-19 has reached Australia and is spreading rapidly around the world. It follows the arrival of a UK variant earlier this month, which now has five recorded cases in Australia, including one in SA.

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The new strains have health authorities on high alert in Australia and around the globe.

The World Health Organisation is yet to determine whether the two new variants could undermine vaccines being rolled out around the world.

The first Australian case of the South African variant is a woman who arrived in Queensland on December 22 and went straight into hotel quarantine.

“Genome sequencing has come back to show that she has this new variant that has been picked up in South Africa that is thought to be more contagious,” the state’s Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young said.

The woman was transferred by ambulance to the Sunshine Coast University Hospital yesterday.

The variant is causing concern around the world because it spreads faster than novel coronavirus, although it’s not necessary more deadly.

Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath said while other jurisdictions had detected a UK variant of the virus, this was the first time the South African strain had been confirmed in Australia.

“We are absolutely confident that all proper measures were taken at the hotel and in the transfer, and of course at the hospital in relation to this positive case,” she said.

The first Australians are set to be vaccinated by the end of March next year.

At least 25 countries around the world have recorded cases of the South African or UK coronavirus variants, including Lebanon, Singapore, Pakistan, India, South Korea, Japan, France, Germany and Italy.

The first US case of the UK COVID-19 variant was reported in Colorado overnight.

The coronavirus variant was found in a man in his 20s who is in isolation southeast of Denver and has no travel history, state health officials said.

Australia has identified five cases of the British variant in arrivals from the UK, including two in NSW, two in Victoria and one in South Australia.

Health authorities confirmed on Sunday that an infectious person in South Australia was carrying the UK variant and had been transferred to the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

SA Health said there was no evidence that this variant of the virus caused more severe disease.

The South Australian Government has promised to set up a dedicated quarantine facility for confirmed cases staffed exclusively by police and health workers.

The promise was made last month as part of an eight-point plan to stop the spread of the virus into the community from returned overseas travellers in quarantine.

The site is yet to be announced despite initial assurances it would be established before repatriation flights resumed on December 8.

The former Wakefield hospital was initially earmarked as a potential site but that plan was scrapped due to concerns about the building’s ventilation.

Acting Health Minister Rob Lucas told ABC Radio yesterday that an announcement would be made soon.

Today’s confirmation of the South African variant case comes as the federal government said it was considering granting “alternate entry” to Australians returning from overseas if they can prove they have already been vaccinated for the virus.

“The Australian government is considering mechanisms for recognising an international immunisation certificate for COVID-19 and potential alternate entry and quarantine arrangements for returning Australians who may have been vaccinated if it is safe to do so,” a Health Department spokesman told The Sydney Morning Herald in a report published on Wednesday.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has repeated his threat to deport backpackers or expatriates caught having large parties in breach of public health orders.

“I have asked the Department of Home Affairs to try to identify anybody who has been disobeying public health orders,” he told Seven’s Sunrise program on Wednesday.

“If a person is a temporary visa holder we will cancel those visas or take action against those people.

“There is no excuse at this point. Australians are tired of it and we want to make sure that everyone is doing the right thing.”

Meanwhile, NSW has reported 18 cases of community transmission of coronavirus, and a second cluster of the deadly disease in Sydney’s inner west.

The so-called Avalon cluster on Sydney’s northern beaches, which erupted earlier this month, generated another nine case in the 24 hours to 8pm last night.

This brings the total for that cluster to 138.

But there’s also another group of six infected persons, dubbed by health experts as the Croydon cluster, in Sydney’s inner west.

As New Year’s Eve approaches, governments across Australia including NSW are warning residents to observe coronavirus restrictions and social distancing.

Sydneysiders have been mostly banned from watching the famous New Year’s Eve fireworks from the harbour with the foreshore fenced off.

Victorians are being urged not to venture into Melbourne’s CBD to celebrate New Year’s Eve after the state on Tuesday racked up its 60th day without any case of community transmission of coronavirus.

So far, 909 people have died in Australia from coronavirus.

 – with AAP

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