Date published: 
12 February 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

FRAN KELLY:

Well 10 Australians are currently being treated in this country for the virus; five have now recovered. Despite the low numbers, prejudice against Chinese Australians is spreading and the Government and health authorities are warning against xenophobia.

Dr Brendan Murphy is the Chief Medical Officer, and I spoke with him earlier.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Good morning.

FRAN KELLY:

The Federal Government's deciding whether to extend the ban on foreign travellers entering Australia from China. It's due to expire on Saturday. Will it be extended? Should it be extended?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

I think we're making a serious consideration of this matter on Thursday. The important consideration is that we are still containing the virus in Australia, we've still only had 15 cases, and there is still a risk associated with the outbreak in many of the provinces of China.

So I think we have to look at all the factors, but we're also are very aware that this travel ban has had huge impact on students and tourism and other economic factors. So the Government will take all those matters into consideration, but they have, as always, taken the expert clinical advice from the Australian Health Protection Clinical Committee, which is going to meet on Thursday and give this matter consideration for Government.

FRAN KELLY:

Okay. At what point would you recommend or the Government decide to lift the travel ban? What is the bar for that? How do you measure when it's safe?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well it's- there are probably two scenarios. One is when we're pretty confident that the outbreak is controlled in the provinces of China other than Wuhan or Hubei province, and we know that the Hubei province is locked down at the moment. But if the growth in other provinces stopped and the disease seemed to be able- to be under control in those provinces, that would be a good basis for something.

And clearly the other less attractive option would be if there were spread of the virus to many countries, and we had widespread transmission in the form of a global pandemic, and then travel bans probably don't add any value in those circumstances.

But at the moment, we're very focused on containment and we have had pretty good containment so far in Australia.

FRAN KELLY:

What's your view? I mean, the number of confirmed cases is pretty low, as you say, 10 people currently in treatment, five have recovered. But the head of the WHO just said overnight that the virus is, quote: a very serious threat for the rest of the world. Is your view we should brace for more cases?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well I think there's definitely going to be more cases in the world, and it's likely …

FRAN KELLY:

Interrupts] In Australia?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

It's very likely we'll see some more cases in Australia. At the moment, all of the cases we've seen have come from Hubei province or been in contact with people who had confirmed cases from there, and that's locked down now so further cases we see are likely to have come from other parts of China. So I think you cannot completely isolate a country.

I think it's quite likely we will see some more cases, but we're well-prepared still to respond and isolate.

FRAN KELLY:

If more cases are likely, and if you said containment is the priority here - it seems to be working at the moment in Australia - well then how does that fit with you saying yesterday there's no need for people here to wear masks? Does that mean you're positive there's no one in the Australian community carrying the virus?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

I can't be 100 per cent positive, but if there were people, they would've likely only been contacts of a tiny number of people here who have had the virus. The only time when you would want to take broader community measures was with- there is evidence of sustained community transmission in Australia. We have no evidence of that. We haven't seen any spread from one person to another, non-contact person at all in Australia.

FRAN KELLY:

And why does that worry you? You seem to link the wearing of masks to what you describe as a rising xenophobia spreading connected to this virus. What what's worrying you about that?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

We're very worried about xenophobia generally. We- the travel bans and all of our attention is focused on people who have come from China, whatever their background, whatever their nationality, we're not focusing on any person, of any particular background or appearance.

But some people in the community have taken a very unfortunate negative view to people of Chinese-Australian appearance, who are at no risk at all, unless of course they have come from China in the last- since 1 February we're saying where the risk became significant. But there are plenty of people of other nationalities who've come to Australia from China from that dates.

So we're saying to people it's all about the travel history, it's not about who you are, what your appearance might be, or what your background might be.

FRAN KELLY:

This is clearly disturbing you. Have you seen this in evidence, have you heard it reported to you from people of Chinese origin?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yes. Yes, we've heard quite a few reports of people who have been avoided on public transport or various situations which are completely without basis and very upsetting for those people concerned.

FRAN KELLY:

You're listening to RN Breakfast, Brendan Murphy is the Chief Medical Officer. Brendan Murphy, there are 540 Australian's still quarantined in Christmas Island and Darwin, some of them are still being tested for the virus. What do we know about the health of people inside these places?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

The health of these returnees is very good, they're being very closely monitored by our expert AUSMAT team in both locations. Anyone with even the slightest hint of a cold or a sniffle is having tests for the coronavirus and we've not seen any positive so far. And the people on Christmas Island are about halfway through their quarantine, which is a good sign.

FRAN KELLY:

The- In fact the first group of them on Christmas Island will be allowed to fly home on Monday I think, though there are reports that one person on Christmas Island is currently being tested for the virus. Is that a threat? Are they clear yet? Or could that potentially hold up the departures of the others?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

If that were positive that may require a small group who've been in contact with that person to extend their quarantine. But all the tests so far have been negative and I think this is another low probability one, but we'll wait and see what the results show us.

FRAN KELLY:

It was also announced yesterday that the RAAF has delivered medical equipment to the Island, including a diagnostic machine. Is that because you're expecting more people to show symptoms, need to be tested, or in fact we're expecting more arrivals? Are there more planes, evacuation planes planned?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

There's no, there's no current plans for further planes. The Department of Foreign Affairs is still working with the people on the ground in Hubei but I'm not advised of any current plans for further planes. The test machine was delivered to Darwin just to make it easier to do any further- to, sorry, Christmas Island to make it easy to do any further testing. It gives the specific test without having to send them away.

FRAN KELLY:

If we look globally we've got contradictory messages, in a way, coming out of China overnight where the country's senior medical adviser said on Tuesday that the coronavirus outbreak in China could be over by April, that it's peaked and could be over by April. And yet we've got the message from the head of the WHO saying the world's got to wake up and consider this virus as public enemy number one. How do you reconcile those two? And do you- are you inclined to accept from China that they think this threat will be over by April?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

I think it's far too premature to say that. We still have- still seeing very significant growth in the Hubei province, and lesser growth in other provinces, and still new exported cases in other countries. And obviously we've all seen that, the spread in that cruise ship.

It's too early to make any predictions about whether the Chinese are getting on top of this at the moment. Obviously they're doing herculean efforts to do so and we certainly congratulate them for what they're doing, but I think we've just got to watch the data very closely over the coming weeks before we make any predictions.

FRAN KELLY:

And what about the entreaties from the WHO Director-General for the world to wake up basically? And he seemed to be urging countries to share more information, share more research. We live in a region which is obviously exposed to the spread of coronavirus yet one of our nearest neighbours, Indonesia, has so far I think still no confirmed cases of the virus. Are you concerned about that? That cases in Indonesia could be going undetected and that many Australians travelling there could be exposed to the virus?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, it's certainly very surprising that they haven't had any cases and, you know, that should be a cause for some concern that there may be undetected cases. We know that they are, they have some diagnostic capability now and I'm sure they're looking at. But it is very surprising, yeah.

FRAN KELLY:

In terms of you being sure they're looking at it, are we having any dialogue with them, urging testing or offering? Or is there any of that kind of regional contact going on?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

[Talks over] We've been- sure. There are moves through our foreign affairs relationships to work with Indonesia, yeah.

FRAN KELLY:

Okay. Just finally, there are currently more than 42,000 cases worldwide. That will increase you'd think and the WHO says a vaccine is still at least 18 months away. Coronavirus is a seasonal disease; winter is coming our way. What precautions should people take? And do you think a vaccine will take that long?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

I think the vaccine has a long way to go. It's getting a candidate molecule is one thing. But then you've got to test it in animals and then you've got to make sure it's safe in humans. And it's unlikely, with all the current predictions, that we'll have a vaccine in time to deal with the peak of this virus but it depends on the timing obviously.

When we say it's a seasonal virus, that's the standard coronavirus - the common cold spread of virus. We don't know exactly whether this one will simply behave like a, well you know, an epidemic, pandemic virus that will peak and then disappear, or in some cases you can get viruses that might stick around and recur. But we don't know whether this one will behave that way or not.

FRAN KELLY:

Dr Murphy what's your biggest fear? As Australia's Chief Medical Officer right now around this virus, what's your most serious concern.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well obviously the worst case scenario would be if the disease severity is high and again, that's one of the big unknowns at the moment. There are conflicting measures of severity. Certainly the exported cases seem relatively mild but we do know that there are severe disease and certainly in the Hubei Province there's been a significant number of deaths. But we don't really know what the denominator is.          

So if the disease were very severe and we had a very significant pandemic in Australia that would be obviously a very significant strain on our health system and on our economy. But we're not anticipating that at the moment, but we certainly are prepared for all eventualities.

FRAN KELLY:

Brendan Murphy, thank you very much for giving us your time, I know how busy you are. Thank you.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Thanks Fran.

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