(Reuters) - New Zealand is well prepared for the discovery of new coronavirus variants that may be resistant to vaccines, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Friday, including the strain currently spreading in South Africa.
"All of our planning around COVID, we have built into it the possibility of variants in the future," Ardern said in an interview for the upcoming Reuters Next conference.
"That is why we are maintaining levels of public health protections. It's why we've maintained requirements at our border."
Britain on Thursday drew attention to a newly identified coronavirus variant in South Africa with a spike protein that was dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that COVID-19 vaccines are based on.
The discovery of the B.1.1.529 strain, which has more mutations than the highly transmissible Delta variant, prompted Britain to rush in travel restrictions on South Africa and five neighbouring countries.
Ardern's government, under mounting pressure from the tourism industry and other businesses, announced earlier this week it would reopen its borders https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/new-zealand-reopen-foreign-travellers-april-30-2021-11-24 to fully vaccinated international travellers from April 30.
When asked on Friday if the new variant would likely delay that timetable, Ardern said the country will had "a number of inbuilt measures to act as a layer of protection."
"With all our changes, we constantly monitor what is happening with the pandemic as we go and we'll continue to do that," she added.
New Zealand's border has been closed for almost two years. Along with its geographic isolation, the South Pacific country enforced some of the tightest pandemic restrictions among OECD nations, limiting the spread of COVID-19 and helping its economy bounce back faster than many of its peers.
Ardern also said New Zealand had already benefited from being able to observe seasonal impacts of the coronavirus in other countries.
"It gives us the ability to see the impact of things like waning immunity, to see what happens with public health restrictions," Ardern said.
"We are transitioning into a phase now where we see the vaccine do some heavy lifting, but we are maintaining a level of public health restriction."
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(Reporting By Jane Wardell; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)