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Omicron COVID-19 variant confirmed in New Zealand

A German resident undertaking quarantine in Christchurch is New Zealand’s first confirmed case of COVID-19’s Omicron variant.

Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield confirmed the case on Thursday afternoon, preaching calmness to Kiwis worried about its arrival.

“We fully expected we would find a case of Omicron,” he said.

“We have good protocols in place that are designed to stop the virus getting across the border that have served us incredibly well.”

The German was fully vaccinated, and returned the positive test on day one of his quarantine on arrival in New Zealand.

Omicron’s growth overseas is prompting the country to consider cutting the time fully vaccinated Kiwis must wait for a booster shot.

However, New Zealand is likely to remove all countries from the “very high risk” designation from African nations as, Dr Bloomfield said “Omicron is everywhere, really”.

The discovery comes as health authorities cleared the vaccine for children.

New Zealand regulator Medsafe gave provisional approval for Pfizer doses to be given to five- to 11-year-olds, which is likely to begin next month should it get cabinet approval.

The last cabinet meeting of the year is on Monday, and it would be a shock if the vaccine was not approved.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has frequently said she is keen to include children in New Zealand’s growing vaccination program when it is safe to do so.

Australia made a similar approval on December 5, following a call from the US in October.

Medsafe manager Chris James defended the Kiwi regulator against claims of tardiness.

“Medsafe will only approve a vaccine or medicine for use in New Zealand once it is satisfied that it has met high standards for quality, safety and efficacy,” he said.

“The Medsafe team has worked tirelessly this year to ensure that COVID-19 vaccine applications are prioritised and urgently reviewed.”

If the pediatric rollout begins next month, children will have protection before they return to school.

“I’m thrilled to hear that the pediatric Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine has passed its first regulatory checkpoint,” University of Auckland associate professor Siouxsie Wiles said.

“With Delta in the community and Omicron knocking on our doors, having a safe and effective vaccine for five to 11-year-olds is crucial for preventing long term health problems and saving lives and livelihoods.”

Also on Thursday, health officials announced that 90 per cent of Kiwis aged 12 or over are fully vaccinated.

COVID-19 Minister Chris Hipkins said Kiwis should “pat themselves on the back”.

There were 91 new community cases reported on Thursday, including 55 in Auckland, and others in Taranaki (16), Bay of Plenty (10) and the Waikato (7).

Wastewater fragments in Gisborne continue to show traces of COVID-19, though testing has not produced any positive cases.

Hospitalisations continue to drop, with 58 recorded on Thursday including four in intensive care.

By Ben McKay in Wellington

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