Omicron subvariants make virus fight in Australia uncertain

Staff check a client at a drive-through COVID-19 testing clinic at Bondi Beach in Sydney, Australia on Jan 8, 2022. (MARK BAKER / AP)

NEW DELHI / SUVA / HANOI / SINGAPORE / SEOUL / SYDNEY / VIENTIANE / WELLINGTON – Three new sub variants of the highly transmissible Omicron strain of COVID-19 have been detected in Australia, adding new uncertainty to the nation's fight to live with the virus.

The new variants have been given the name BA.2.12.1, BA.4 and BA.5. Scientists are racing to find out both the "fitness" and "transmissibility" of the strains believed to have evolved from Omicron BA.2.

Associate Professor Stuart Turville from the University of New South Wales' Kirby Institute told Xinhua on Wednesday that the new strains didn't appear to be "seismic" jumps compared to previous mutations.

"The key thing is that these are small changes in the virus, and not unlike what we have seen before. They may not resemble the large shift we saw with Delta to Omicron," said Turville.

Despite this, it would be critical for Australia to watch closely how these variants develop as the "potential pathways" they may take are still unknown, he said.

"Not only how they transmit, the case loads, but I guess the really important question with variants, is the severity that they cause when they do get in and raise a bit of havoc in our bodies."

Turville said that the new variations, while small, could lead to unexpected spikes in case numbers and deaths.

Multiple funeral pyres of victims of COVID-19 burn in an area converted into a crematorium for mass cremations in New Delhi, India, on 25 April, 2021. (ALTAF QADRI / AP)


India registered about 475,000 more total deaths in 2020 than the previous year, government data released months ahead of schedule on Tuesday showed, as the World Health Organization readies its estimates of excess COVID-19 deaths whose methodology New Delhi has opposed.

Some experts estimate India's actual COVID-19 death toll is as high as 4 million, about eight times the official figure, especially as a record wave driven by the Delta variant killed many people in April and May of last year. The WHO's estimate will be published on Thursday.

Vinod Kumar Paul, a top health official who has overseen India's fight against the pandemic, said there was nothing "dramatic" in the total death data for 2020 and that those were "absolute, correct and counted numbers".

He said the data showing 8.1 million total deaths in India in 2020 was released by the Office of the Registrar General two to three months in advance because of the attention on the country's COVID-19 toll.

"There is a public narrative in the media, based on various modelling estimates, that India's COVID-19 deaths are many times the reported figure – that's not the case in reality," he told state TV.

"We now have actual data for 2020, there is no need to do any modelling now. We will have actual, robust data for 2021 too. Modeling can lead to overestimation, absurd estimation."

The death count grew slower in the country of 1.35 billion people in 2020 than in the previous two years, the data showed.

India officially reported 148,738 COVID-19 deaths in 2020, with the tally jumping to 523,889 on Tuesday out of more than 43 million cumulative infections. Only the United States and Brazil have recorded more deaths as of Tuesday.

Countries around the world reported only 1.83 million COVID-19 deaths in 2020 but the WHO estimates excess mortality of at least 3 million globally for that year.

India has said it does not agree with the WHO's methodology, though the scientists working on the latest estimates have defended it.


Lao health authorities have advised members of the public to get a COVID-19 vaccine booster to strengthen their immunity and meet the criteria needed to apply for foreign travel.

Having booster shots (the third or fourth vaccination) is a requirement for application for foreign travel, local daily Vientiane Times reported on Wednesday.

It comes as the government is considering fully reopening the country to travel for both Lao and foreign nationals.

Phonepaserd Sayamoungkhoun, deputy director-general of the Department of Communicable Diseases Control under the Lao Ministry of Health, said that a booster dose was a requirement when applying for permission to travel to another country.

Booster vaccination uptake remains low in Laos, with the coverage currently standing at 19.4 percent of the population.

New Zealand

New Zealand recorded 8,454 new community cases of COVID-19, the Ministry of Health said in a statement on Wednesday.

Among the new community infections, 2,568 were reported in the largest city Auckland, said the ministry.

In addition, 124 new cases of COVID-19 were detected at the New Zealand border.


In Samoa, the cabinet has decided to extend the level two lockdown for another two weeks effective on midnight Tuesday until May 17.

Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata'afa has announced the resumption of international flights this month, though restricted to Samoans traveling in for various purposes and for all those contracted to work in the island nation.

The prime minister also said that Samoa will re-open its borders to fully vaccinated international travelers in August or September this year.

Critical to the opening of borders are current vaccination rates, amending quarantine requirements and opening of borders by Fiji, Australia and New Zealand for Samoa, she added.

In Samoa, 92.6 percent of people aged 18 years and above have received the second doses of COVID-19 vaccine, while a total of 70,439 have had their booster shots.

Samoa now has 19 COVID-19 related deaths.

A notice warning people not to gather in groups larger than five persons as part of restrictions to hald the spread of the coronavirus is displayed at Raffles Place financial business district in Singapore on Jan 4, 2022. (ROSLAN RAHMAN / AFP)


Singapore reported 1,570 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the total tally to 1,202,546.

Of the new cases, 170 cases were detected through PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests and 1,400 through ART (antigen rapid test) tests, according to statistics released by the Ministry of Health.

South Korea

South Korea reported 49,064 new COVID-19 cases as of midnight Tuesday compared to 24 hours ago, raising the total number of infections to 17,395,791, the health authorities said Wednesday.

The daily caseload was down from 51,131 the previous day and lower than 76,775 tallied a week earlier, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

A woman (center) carries a refilled gas container in the center of the capital Nuku'alofa ahead of the country's first lockdown on Feb 2, 2022, after COVID-19 was detected in the previously virus-free Pacific kingdom as it struggles to recover from the deadly Jan 15 volcanic eruption and tsunami. (MARY LYN FONUA / MATANGI TONGA / AFP)


Tonga reported 174 new COVID-19 cases over the past few days, while Samoa has decided to extend its level two lockdown for another two weeks.

According to Matangi Tonga Online news website on Tuesday night, Tonga's Ministry of Health confirmed that the Pacific island nation recorded 174 COVID-19 cases from Sunday to Monday, bringing the total number of active COVID-19 cases to 1,217, the majority of which are in Tonga's main island of Tongatapu.

The number of COVID-19 related deaths remains at 11.

Currently, 91 percent of Tonga's target population over the age of 12 have had the second doses of COVID-19 vaccine, at least 98 percent have received the first doses and 56 percent have got their booster shots.

Tonga is still under the orange lockdown level restriction and the curfew is from 10:00 pm to 5:00 am local time.


Vietnam reported 2,709 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, down by 413 from Monday.

The health ministry said the new infections, recorded in 53 provinces and cities, were all domestically transmitted.