Dr Alice Lam, GP & Health Writer

I am an experienced physician who produces high quality medical content

Dr Alice Lam, GP & Health Writer

I am an experienced physician who produces high quality medical content

Dr Alice Lam, GP & Health Writer

I am an experienced physician who produces high quality medical content

computer generated representation of COVID-19 virions (SARS-CoV-2) under electron microscope, two vials of SARS-COV-2 mRNA vaccine, one electronic and one paper Canadian passport

COVID information and links

Image by Soupvector at Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0 Creator's notes: "​Omicron variant and other major or previous variants of concern of SARS-CoV-2 depicted in a tree scaled radially by genetic distance, derived from Nextstrain
​Image by Soupvector at Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 4.0 Creator's notes: "​Omicron variant and other major or previous variants of concern of SARS-CoV-2 depicted in a tree scaled radially by genetic distance, derived from Nextstrain on 1 December 2021"

Updated 25 December 2021

On 24th November 2021, the latest COVID-19 variant was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO), following a steep rise in infections. 

Omicron was reported to have been found in 76 countries as of 12 December 2021 [1] and 89 countries in all six WHO regions by 19 December 2021 [2]. Most Omicron cases in November 2021 were travel-related but now community clusters are being seen [2]. 

The WHO has now advised that Omicron is spreading faster than Delta, with Omicron cases doubling every 1.5 to 3 days in places with community transmission – even in places where there are high levels of population immunity [3]. Omicron appears to be spreading faster than Delta in countries such as South Africa and the UK [3]. In fact, Omicron is now the dominant strain in several countries, and in Australia, community transmission of the Omicron variant is occurring in every jurisdictions apart from Western Australia [4].

Interestingly, a snapshot of total number of COVID-19 cases on 14 December 2021 reported that in the past two months, Delta made up 99.2% of cases, followed by Omicron at less than 1 in 1,000 cases [2].

Awaiting peer-review, a recent report by Imperial College London suggests that there is just over a five-fold higher risk of being re-infected with the Omicron variant compared to the Delta variant – implying that past Omicron infection only gives 19% protection. This can be compared against the 85% protection for the six months following Delta infection. Data suggest that booster doses are needed to improve vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic Omicron infection (see Figure 1 below) [5]. 

As preliminary evidence also suggests that vaccines may be less effective against Omicron transmission [3,5], booster doses are now being recommended. A little more on booster shots coming up. ATAGI advise shortening the interval between the primary course and the booster dose from five months to four months for all adults aged 18 and over; in time this is expected to reduce to three months. This shortened booster interval also applies to pregnant women, and to immunocompromised people who have had a three-dose primary course [4].

More data are still needed to confirm whether Omicron will cause more severe disease compared to other variants. Although generalisations cannot be made, in Scotland and South Africa it has been reported that there is a reduced risk of hospitalisations of around 67-80% respectively than for people with the Delta strain [4]. However, current COVID-19 treatments are expected to still be effective for Omicron [2].

And finally, Omicron appears to be detectable using our current polymerase chain reaction (PCR – where genetic material is detected) and rapid diagnostic tests (or lateral flow tests, LFTs, where viral proteins are detected) [2]. You can read more about LFT versus PCR testing here.

Researchers continue to collaborate globally to assess the performance of our current vaccines, tests and treatments [1].

References

1. World Health Organization. Classification of Omicron (B.1.1.529): SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 19]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news/item/26-11-2021-classification-of-omicron-(b.1.1.529)-sars-cov-2-variant-of-concern

2. World Health Organization. Weekly epidemiological update on COVID-19 – 14 December 2021 [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 19]. Available from: https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/situation-reports/20211214_weekly_epi_update_70.pdf?sfvrsn=ad19bf83_3&download=true

3. World Health Organization. Enhancing Readiness for Omicron (B.1.1.529): Technical Brief and Priority Actions for Member States | Overview [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 19]. Available from: https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/enhancing-readiness-for-omicron-(b.1.1.529)-technical-brief-and-priority-actions-for-member-states

4. ATAGI. ATAGI Statement on the Omicron variant and the timing of COVID-19 booster vaccination | Australian Government Department of Health [Internet]. 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 25]. Available from: https://www.health.gov.au/news/atagi-statement-on-the-omicron-variant-and-the-timing-of-covid-19-booster-vaccination

5. Head E, van Elsland S. Omicron largely evades immunity from past infection or two vaccine doses [Internet]. Imperial News. 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 19]. Available from: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/news/232698/omicron-largely-evades-immunity-from-past/

omicron vaccine effectiveness pic

Figure 1. Vaccine effectiveness against Omicron. Adapted [4]

Young man having small dressing applied to upper arm

Updated 22 December 2021

Due to the emergence of the new Omicron variant (detected in 50 countries so far), the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has advised that booster doses should be given earlier than previously advised. People in certain occupations, living in outbreak areas, or who have risk factors for severe disease are especially recommended get booster shots.

A booster dose is now recommended for anyone aged 18 years and over, where the primary (first two shots) COVID-19 course have been given 5 months ago.

You can read more about safety and efficacy of booster shots, and the proposed booster program for those in residential care, people with disability in shared residential accommodation, and healthcare workers.

A third primary dose is now recommended for people who are severely immunocompromised, as their antibody levels are not as high as someone with a healthy immune system. Have a chat with your doctor if you fall into this category, which includes certain people with cancers or cancer treatments, organ transplant recipients, immunosuppressive medications, immunodeficiency, or long term haemodialysis/peritoneal dialysis. At this stage, a booster dose is not recommended for people who have had their three-shot primary course.

Once you are eligible, book in with a participating GP, or you can click here to find a vaccine clinic.

Finally, Comirnaty (Pfizer) vaccine is approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), and Spikevax (Moderna) has only provisional approval at this stage. Astra Zeneca vaccine may be given under certain circumstances.

References

ATAGI statement on the Omicron variant and timing of COVID-19 booster vaccination [Internet]. Australian Government Department of Health. 2021. Available from: https://www.health.gov.au/news/atagi-statement-on-the-omicron-variant-and-timing-of-covid-19-booster-vaccination. [Accessed 12 Dec. 2021].

COVID-19 booster vaccine advice [Internet]. Australian Government Department of Health. 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 13]. Available from: https://www.health.gov.au/initiatives-and-programs/covid-19-vaccines/getting-your-vaccination/booster-doses. [Accessed 13 Dec. 2021].

Updated 8 Jan 2022

COVID-19 Test and Isolate National Protocol guide

Full screen view available here.

 

Updated 8 January 2022

First, don’t panic. Check the “Test and Isolate Protocol” guide above.

Most people have mild symptoms and make a full recovery. If you have possible risk factors for more severe disease, such as pregnancy, obesity, chronic/complex medical conditions (such as heart or lung), diabetes, immunocompromise or severe mental illness, then it is especially important you contact your GP or State/Territory number below. 

Second, be aware that the official advice around testing, isolating and notification of contacts is constantly evolving. The best sources of latest information will be one one of the following:

  • Your GP
  • The 24/7 National Coronavirus Helpline: 1800 020 080

and your State/Territory website:

Third, practical resources to help you manage COVID at home (such as how to monitor symptoms and an action plan) include the healthdirect website and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners’ online booklet.
https://dralicelam.com/covid-19-information/mRNAbooster
two women wearing face masks, one medical, one patterned fabric

Updated 23 December 2021

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has updated its advice and now recommends medical masks for the following [1]:

  • People aged 60 or over, or
  • People of any age with health conditions such as chronic respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, immunocompromise and diabetes

For healthy adults under the age of 60, fabric masks may be used. The WHO has a useful Q&A page which covers choosing or making your own fabric mask, and how to don and doff your mask with care. However, the Australian Government advises that although fabric masks provide some additional protection alongside social distancing and other measures, it has been found that:

  • Medical (or surgical) masks are significantly more efficient than fabric masks, and that
  • The effectiveness of fabric masks can be variable due to being unregulated, having different material properties (weave, number of layers) and a propensity to becoming damp and thus less useful

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both advise caution when purchasing masks and respirators, due to variable quality and even counterfeit products on the market.

Reference

1. WHO (2020). Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Masks. [online] www.who.int. Available at: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/question-and-answers-hub/q-a-detail/coronavirus-disease-covid-19-masks [Accessed 27 Nov. 2021].

Example of rapid antigen tests showing two nasal swab kits

Updated 8 March 2022

From 1 November 2021, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approved use of rapid antigen self-tests (RATs or RA tests), which are sold in participating pharmacies and retail outlets.

Useful for home or workplace testing, RATs detect the virus via either nasal swab or saliva, giving a likelihood of having COVID-19. This is important to understand, as these tests are less accurate than standard (PCR) tests (i.e. have more false-positives and false-negatives than PCR tests), but they are quicker, generally giving a result in 15-20 minutes. RATs can also be used by children aged 12-17 years with parental/guardian guidance, and by a parent/guardian if under 12.

Here is a good summary of when and which tests are useful in different situations. 

If you have a positive test, you have COVID and must isolate immediately. See below for “If you test positive for COVID”.

If you have a negative test, especially if you are well, it is likely you do not have COVID. But if you have any symptoms, you can repeat the RAT in 1-2 days (repeated tests will give better accuracy of result) whilst isolating, or you could get a PCR test.

You can read more about RATs by clicking on the links in the below references.

References

1. Therapeutic Goods Administration. Home Use Tests for COVID-19 [Internet]. 2021. Available from: https://www.tga.gov.au/sites/default/files/consumer-fact-sheet-rapid-antigen-self-tests.pdf

2. Victoria State Government Department of Health. Rapid antigen self-tests [Internet]. 2021. Available from: https://content.vic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2021-11/rapid_antigen_testing_simplified_factsheet.pd

Collection of different pills and tablets

Post-exposure hydroxychloroquine – there is no strong evidence for their safety and efficacy in prevention of COVID-19. This medications can also cause many serious side effects, including heart rhythm disturbances, especially if prescribed with azithromycin [1].

There is more information on available treatments here.

Vaccines – Check your country’s Department of Health website. For instance, in Australia, the Government has a webpage to keep Australians informed about the COVID-19 vaccines and the latest news [2]. You can also check out my COVID-19 vaccine update post below.

Treatment

An evolving landscape, treatment of an infected person ranges from home management to hospitalisation.

For people with milder disease (no pneumonia and normal oxygen levels) can generally be managed at home with a doctor assessing regularly, especially in patients who are at higher risk of getting worse. Rising age is the greatest risk factor for severe illness and dying from COVID-19, but also those with chronic conditions such as heart, lung, diabetes and cancer also need to be considered on a case-by-case basis as to optimal treatment.

On 4th November 2021, the UK became the first country to approve and purchase Lagevrio (molnupiravir). The antiviral works by essentially confusing the virus’ ability to replicate by throwing in multiple errors, so eventually the virus cannot survive [3]. Merck (the manufacturer of Lagevrio) claims that the drug halves the number of hospitalisations in people with mild to moderate COVID-19, and Pfizer have announced that their antiiviral, Paxlovid (ritonavir), cuts hospitalisations by almost 90% [3].

Taken for five days as a twice-daily pill, Lagevrio’s side effects have been reported as mild to moderate, including diarrhoea, nausea, dizziness and headache. It is not recommended for women who are:

  • Pregnant
  • Who are at risk of pregnancy
  • Breastfeeding (breastfeeding can restart four days after the last dose) [4]

Could there be a risk of the COVID-19 virus developing resistance to Lagevrio or Paxlovid? We already know that resistance is seen in some people with hepatitis B and C. At this early stage of new innovations, only time will tell.

References

1. Boulware, D., 2020. A Randomized Trial of Hydroxychloroquine as Post-exposure Prophylaxis for Covid-19. The New England Journal of Medicine, [Online]. 10.1056, Online ahead of print.. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32492293/ [Accessed 17 June 2020].
2. Australian Government Department of Health (2021). COVID-19 vaccines. [online] Australian Government Department of Health. Available at: https://www.health.gov.au/initiatives-and-programs/covid-19-vaccines [Accessed 27 Nov. 2021].
3. Ledford, H. (2021). COVID antiviral pills: what scientists still want to know. Nature, [online] (ISSN 1476-4687). Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-03074-5 [Accessed 27 Nov. 2021].
4. European Medicines Agency (2021). EMA issues advice on use of Lagevrio (molnupiravir) for the treatment COVID-19 – European Medicines Agency. [online] European Medicines Agency. Available at: https://www.ema.europa.eu/en/news/ema-issues-advice-use-lagevrio-molnupiravir-treatment-covid-19 [Accessed 27 Nov. 2021].

June 29, 2018 launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Photo by Bill Jelen on Unsplash.

Updated 28 Jan 2022

Firstly, here we have a salient reminder of the consequences of remaining unvaccinated. Figure 1 below shows significantly lower rates of infection in people who are boosted, compared to those who are unvaccinated.

Next, for those wondering if booster vaccinations have much to offer, recent data suggest that mRNA vaccines are beneficial for both Delta and Omicron variants. 

On 21 January 2022, a Press Briefing by White House COVID-⁠19 Response Team and Public Health Officials announced study findings (Figures 2 and 3 below), showing that boosters provide increased effectiveness in:

  • Preventing COVID-19–associated emergency department and urgent care encounters, and
  • Preventing COVID-19–associated hospitalisations
Slide showing mRNA vaccine effectiveness against hospitalisation with Delta or Omicron variants. Sourced from 21 January 2022 Press Briefing by White House COVID-⁠19 Response Team and Public Health Officials

Figure 3. (CC BY 3.0 US)

In a nutshell, there is now good evidence that an mRNA booster significantly improves your chances at avoiding COVID-19 infection, a trip to hospital or your doctor. If you are eligible, book yours in as soon as it becomes available.

COVID-19 FAQs

Updated 26 December 2021

There are quite a few websites which are based on scientific findings and widely accepted knowledge.

From questions about safety and efficacy, to vaccination in children, to the risk of blood clots, and even decision-making guides for women planning pregnancy, this site is easy to navigate:

National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) 

In addition, people in Australia may find this site produced by the Department of Health quick and practical to use:

And for a general, global overview of COVID-19, check out the World Health Organization’s website for news, research and situation updates, The WHO even have a YouTube channel called “Science in 5” where they cover COVID-19 questions in a video and podcast series 

Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that cause the common cold, and more seriously illnesses such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is a new strain in humans, which researchers believe may have been passed to humans by exposure to bats or pangolins, following genomic sequencing.

On 20 January 2020, Chinese authorities confirmed the novel coronavirus was spreading person-to-person. The first case in Australia was confirmed on 23 January 2020,

Testing is recommended in people who display the following symptoms:

Fever OR chills in the absence of an alternative diagnosis that explains the clinical presentation

OR

Acute respiratory infection that is characterised by runny nose, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath or loss of sense of smell/taste

OR

Consider testing if you have headache, muscle aches, stuffy nose, nausea, vomiting or diarrhoea and:

  • You have returned from overseas in the past 14 days
  • You have been in close contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19
  • You are a health care or aged care worker

If you’re not sure, use the healthdirect Symptom Checker or ask your doctor.

In addition, check with official guidance on testing when travelling.

Here are the main ways you can find out.

You can phone the 24/7 National Coronavirus Helpline on 1800 020 080.

If you use the healthdirect Symptom Checker, you will be shown your closest COVID-19 clinics (not including GPs).

Or, you can also check the following links for your State or Territory:

ACT — covid19.act.gov.au
Qld — covid19.qld.gov.au
NT — coronavirus.nt.gov.au
NSW — nsw.gov.au/covid-19
SA — covid-19.sa.gov.au
Tas — coronavirus.tas.gov.au
Vic — dhhs.vic.gov.au/coronavirus
WA — healthywa.wa.gov.au

Find out what you can and can’t do in your state or territory here. Includes current advice on domestic travel. 

For up-to-date travel advice, click here for the Smartraveller website.

It is widely recognised that public health emergencies can affect so many people, including affecting their mental health.

Firstly, please don’t feel that you have to manage this alone. I’d like to invite you to check out the Mental Health during COVID page I’ve written especially for people struggling during the pandemic. Reach out to someone you trust – partner, friend, family or colleague. Ring a mental health helpline. Book in with your GP. If you haven’t seen your psychologist for a while, give them a call. 

There are many avenues of support. Don’t walk alone.