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Nov. 26 (Reuters) – New Zealand is well prepared for the discovery of new coronavirus variants that may be resistant to vaccines, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Friday, including the strain currently spreading in South Africa.
“All of our planning around COVID, we’ve built in the possibility of variants in the future,” Ardern said in an interview for the upcoming Reuters Next conference.
“That’s why we maintain levels of public health protection. That’s why we’ve maintained requirements at our border.”
Britain drew attention to a newly identified coronavirus variant in South Africa with a spike protein that was dramatically different from that in the original coronavirus on which COVID-19 vaccines are based.
The discovery of the B.1.1.529 strain, which has more mutations than the highly transmissible Delta variant, prompted Britain to step up travel restrictions on South Africa and five neighboring countries.
The Ardern government, under increasing pressure from the tourism industry and other businesses, announced earlier this week that it would reopen its borders for fully vaccinated international travelers from April 30.
When asked Friday whether the new variant was likely to delay that timetable, Ardern said the country will have “some built-in measures to act as a layer of protection”.
“With all our changes, we are constantly monitoring what is happening with the pandemic and we will continue to do so,” she added.
The New Zealand border has been closed for almost two years. In addition to its geographic isolation, the South Pacific country enforced some of the strictest pandemic restrictions among OECD countries, limiting the spread of COVID-19 and helping the economy recover faster than many of its peers.
Ardern also said New Zealand had already benefited from the opportunity to observe seasonal effects of the coronavirus in other countries.
“It gives us the opportunity to see the impact of things like waning immunity, to see what happens with public health restrictions,” Ardern said.
“We’re now moving into a phase where we see the vaccine doing some heavy lifting, but we’re maintaining a level of public health restriction.”
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Reporting by Jane Wardell; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan
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