Not over yet: Expert's bleak Australian virus prediction

 

An Aussie expert has dashed hopes of a return to normality any time soon - and has cautioned that a potential COVID-19 vaccine would not be a "silver bullet".

As Victorians look forward to the end of stage four restrictions in two weeks' time, University of Melbourne epidemiologist Tony Blakely said eliminating the coronavirus was likely "too hard" to achieve and that the crisis was "not over" yet.

Instead, Dr Blakely said we should look to South Korea - which is currently experiencing a spike in coronavirus cases of between 200 to 300 a day - for an example of how our own "tight suppression" strategy could play out.

Dr Blakely said countries such as France, Spain and the UK had opted for what he terms a "loose suppression" strategy with case numbers hovering at around 80 to 120 a day without the "sky falling in".

But in Australasia, many nations have chosen a "tight suppression" tactic in a bid to control the virus more closely and push down case numbers - a strategy which won't stop outbreaks but could "decrease the frequency".

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Outbreaks can’t be eliminated, but they can be decreased, as South Korea has shown. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Bianca De Marchi
Outbreaks can’t be eliminated, but they can be decreased, as South Korea has shown. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Bianca De Marchi

Before South Korea's current outbreak, the nation was recording between just 10 and 40 cases a day, which Dr Blakely described as "very impressive" considering its population of 51 million.

So how did South Korea pull of that feat - and how can we replicate it Down Under?

THE SOUTH KOREAN MODEL

According to Dr Blakely, South Korea nailed its handling of the virus through a combination of excellent contact tracing and testing alongside far-reaching support for those in isolation, the adoption of a "staged system" which allowed certain zones to be locked down more harshly in the event of spikes and the early adoption of mandatory face masks.

While Victoria's contact tracing had likely improved recently, Dr Blakely said it had previously "failed".

"South Korea perhaps has cultural norms that allows its strategy to work more intensely, but we can learn from it," he told news.com.au.

"Firstly they have an app that works, and they also use things like Visa records to see who was in a shop at the same time, although that level of privacy opening may or may not fly in Australia and the data may not be centralised enough to do so.

"They've also got CCTV, and a good social health-type system where people found to be a case are provided with accommodation immediately. They really look after people - it's not just about enforcement, but also making sure they have things like groceries."

Dr Blakely said effective testing and contract tracing worked together to help get the virus reproduction rate down to less than R1, which then allowed a country to more effectively contain it.

He said it was also essential to have a "dashboard" that was updated with crucial information such as how quickly those potentially exposed to a case were informed and the gap between a person getting tested and receiving their results.

"These things ensure we know about any slippage and can improve the quality," he said.

BRAVE NEW WORLD

Dr Blakely said in Victoria in particular, things would not return to normal in a hurry and that residents would have to learn to live with the virus for some time.

He warned certain places - such as gyms, churches and abattoirs - were especially susceptible to outbreaks and would need to introduce long-term changes in response.

He also called for greater public education when it comes to the correct use of face masks.

"While we're living with this virus, every little thing we do can help get the reproductive rate below 1, and that's the goal," he said.

"Things will never be fully normal - the MCG will never be full - until we have a vaccine … we will have to change some aspects of our behaviour and some of the ways society functions."

Other examples of changes we can expect to see in outbreak areas include the staggering of work start times to relieve congestion on public transport, with many employees potentially working from home until a vaccine was available.

Those who do return to work will need to wear face masks in public while access to lifts and tea rooms will be limited, and Friday pub sessions will be restricted to table service only in outdoor spaces.

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Dr Tony Blakely says South Korea was the best example of how our own coronavirus situation could play out.
Dr Tony Blakely says South Korea was the best example of how our own coronavirus situation could play out.

"This will help keep the economy going without shutting down, but lockdowns will still be there if things get out of control," he warned.

Dr Blakely said at the moment, NSW, Victoria and Queensland were all in the "tight suppression club" as all three states had experienced outbreaks, but that Queensland and NSW could potentially become more in line with the other states once outbreaks were contained.

Unfortunately, he said an earlier prediction that Victoria could return to single digit COVID-19 case totals by this weekend was a "mistake" and that for that to happen, there would need to be a 40 per cent a day fall in cases, which was almost "inconceivable".

NO 'SILVER BULLET'

While some nations are pursuing herd immunity - the US through "chaos" and Sweden by "deliberate design", according to Dr Blakely, most countries are pinning their hopes on a vaccine.

But he warned that even then, the virus wouldn't disappear completely.

"Most countries are waiting for a vaccine but it's not a silver bullet," he said.

He said if we assumed an early version of a vaccine would be 70 per cent effective and that 70 per cent of the nation would be vaccinated, we could expect around 50 per cent of the population to be protected and 50 per cent to remain susceptible.

"It's reasonable that even with herd immunity, there will still be people getting infected post-vaccination," he said.

"The probable scenario is we would open up like normal but there would still be outbreaks and deaths, so there would still need to be measures to deal with infected people."

He said the flu vaccination's effectiveness varied from 55 per cent to 80 per cent year to year, and that it was unreasonable to expect a coronavirus vaccine to be "perfect".

And while the overall effectiveness will increase along with the vaccination rate, it would not be possible to make the jab mandatory - although Dr Blakely predicted some workplaces would prevent staff from returning to work without proof of vaccination until the outbreak passes.

 

 

Originally published as Country's virus trajectory big clue for Aus


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