Some say it’s Australia’s second wave, others that it’s still the first that immediate action allowed us to suppress. Either way, the spike in COVID-19 cases in Melbourne and the need to again impose lockdowns has refocussed our thoughts and out thinking.
Cosmos asked Dr Rob Grenfell, Health Director, Health & Biosecurity, for the CSIRO, the national science agency, to provide some context.
A “second wave” was not unexpected, but has it occurred as we might have expected?
When we first went into lockdown, the main bulk of COVID-19 cases were returned travellers. However, NSW and Victoria did have a number of cases with an unknown source, more than likely contracted via community transmission.
It’s hard to predict how the virus will spread when the source is unknown and contact tracing cannot take place. What we do know is that whatever we’re seeing now, is the result of what happened around 10 days ago. That’s the challenge for case trackers.
It is highly likely that NSW will experience a surge in cases like Victoria over the next few weeks.
We now have more knowledge about and experience of this pandemic. Could or should that affect how Australia responds to the current situation? What are the biggest challenges?
We know that the virus is extremely infectious and being in close quarters with other people for longer than 10 to 15 minutes presents a high risk for transmission. Research has also been done on the virus’ ability to survive on different surfaces and we know that is it very persistent in the environment. It’s clear that social distancing remains critical, and that deep cleaning of public spaces including public transport can help minimise risk of exposure.
Our understanding of how the virus spreads through the air is also evolving, with many countries mandating the use of face masks. It has been posited that virus particles floating in the air — produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes — could infect people, although the research is still inconclusive.
The biggest challenge is how little we know about the virus, and the lack of effective treatments. This is where the global scientific community plays a vital role in developing potential vaccines and drugs and undertaking research to inform our response.
Are there factors specific to Australia that have affected its experience and response to date?
As Australia’s initial response to the outbreak was efficient and the numbers of hospitalisations and deaths were comparatively low, COVID-19 hasn’t impacted on the collective psyche as much as in other countries. This feeds into the human tendency to deny serious events and can foster the idea that it is “all over” or “just a little flu”. So as a country we need to ensure we are not complacent and remain vigilant to possible infection, with a continued focus on what has happened in other countries.
Australians were also incredibly obliging in following the government’s advice during the initial lockdown. This was the reason we were able to flatten the curve so effectively earlier this year. The resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Victoria and NSW shows that this is a very dangerous virus, one that we must remain vigilant against.
Because Australia was able to flatten the curve, and as a result of our robust public health system, we’ve had the time to get our health services ready, prepare for an increase in hospitalisations and intensive care cases.
What, if anything, can the international community learn from the Australian experience?
Science has never been more important. Where there’s a lack of consistency in approach we’re seeing dire consequences.
Overall, our government’s response has been cohesive and decision makers have listened and responded to expert medical advice. This is evidenced in how Australia was able to flatten the curve relatively quickly at the start of the pandemic.
Australia’s investment into developmental science has also meant that we have a multitude of successful advances coming from our research centres. CSIRO’s high containment biosecurity facility, the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, was engaged to participate in preclinical evaluations studies for two vaccine candidates within two weeks of the outbreak.
The Doherty Institute in Melbourne was the first group outside China to successfully grow the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which allowed scientists to undertake genomic characterisation. CSIRO scientists analysed the genome sequences of SARS-CoV-2 to understand how clades were evolving and their potential impact.
From what we know, the now-dominant G-strain mutation will not affect the vaccines and therapeutics under development that target the virus’ spike protein.
Has the basic “take home” message about COVID-19 changed?
The message remains the same. This is a very serious infection. The mortality rate of COVID-19 is around 0.5-1%, making it far deadlier than influenza. We must continue to practise good hand hygiene, social distancing and avoid gathering in close quarters with other people.
What are the broader issues here from a biosecurity as well as a health perspective?
It’s important to remember that this won’t be the last pandemic. Over the last 20 years there’s been a rise in zoonotic diseases — passed from animals to humans — due to a number of factors including humans encroaching on natural habitats, increased international travel and a changing climate.
We need to build our resilience to emerging infectious diseases by bolstering our capacity to predict and prepare for future outbreaks, as well as the ability to swiftly respond and recover from them.
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