Department of Health Chief Scientific Adviser Ian Town, Chief Testing Adviser Kirsten Beynon and Senior Scientific Adviser Fiona Callaghan provided an update on surveillance measures used to monitor new variants of Covid-19 at Aotearoa.
Four cases of the Omicron BA.5 subvariant and one case of BA.4 were detected in the community with no clear border connection last Friday.
Epidemiologist Michael Baker later said he was not surprised that new subvariants of Omicron were found in the community because the new variants were more infectious.
The Department of Health’s chief scientific adviser, Fiona Callaghan, said the BA.2 variant was currently responsible for more than 95% of reported community cases in New Zealand.
She said new variants – BA.4 and BA.5 – are “starting to show early signs of increasing prevalence”.
The possibility of people catching Covid-19 every year was an area of active discussion, she said.
“It is entirely possible that we will see, over a long period of time, repeated infections, particularly if new variants emerge.”
Callaghan said apart from RAT and PCR testing, sewage testing has helped monitor the level of infection in the community.
Chief Scientific Adviser Ian Town said there were still more waves of Omicron around the world: “New Zealand has experienced exactly the same with additional sub-variants detected over the past few weeks” .
“There is a small chance that in future a more aggressive variant could be found in New Zealand but in general we will have seen this emergence overseas and that is where our international monitoring plays an important role.
“Covid is not going away. This is an ongoing challenge for us as it is in many other countries. Our response has continually adapted and responded to new evidence and information.”
The ministry was initially working on “a phase-out strategy, but in December last year that changed and we are now working within the Covid-19 protection framework environment,” he said.
Orange’s current settings, which related to protection and monitoring, would be reviewed next week, he said.
Although the number of cases had peaked earlier in the year, the number of cases was still high and the health care system would continue to feel the strain as winter colds and flu cases increased, said he declared.
Town said the medical and scientific community is concerned “there may be longstanding damage to various organs and some of the symptoms that people have been experiencing – pain, brain fog – some of these other symptoms almost certainly represent certain impacts on those organ systems. We don’t have any New Zealand data on that at this time.”
The department’s chief testing adviser, Kirsten Beynon, said the surveillance measures included a survey of “travellers entering New Zealand, individuals and sewage in our communities and those who are sickest in our hospitals”.
“We can triangulate this information to understand the collective burden of disease.”
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As Omicron continues to circulate in the community, “opening borders will bring new variants,” she said.
“So we have to be vigilant at our borders and within our communities.”
Many countries had stopped border testing, she said, but “in Aotearoa we are maintaining a high level of testing at our borders.”
People crossing the New Zealand border test themselves on days 0/1 and 5/6.
Beynon said the numbers were encouraging. For example, of the 37,000 people who arrived in New Zealand in the week ending June 5, “75% completed and reported two RATs”.
“Of those tested, around 2.3% were positive for Covid-19.”
About a third of positive newcomers were receiving PCR tests for whole genome sequencing, Beynon said.
The country was building up all of its genome sequencing capacity, she said.
Town said the department is currently conducting a request for research proposals to help us learn from our past experience, but also to plan for the future.
“We have $9 million available and this tender closes this Friday. We expect to make an announcement on successful projects in August this year.
“Vaccination remains at the core of our protection framework and is the best way to protect us and our whānau, including vulnerable population groups, from the worst effects of Covid-19.”