SABRA LANE: Australia's Chief Medical Officer is Professor Brendan Murphy. When I spoke with him earlier, I began by asking what will happen if the World Health Organization decides to declare this outbreak a public health emergency.
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY: Well that sets up a range of responses from the World Health Organization, it ups their response and their involvement in managing the outbreak in China. It probably won't have much significance for us in terms of our response, we've already ramped up our national response. Things have changed a lot over the last three or four days. There have been a significant increase in case numbers, evidence of some human to human transmission, and we've heard reports now of six deaths, even though the case numbers are probably over 300. So we have more concern than we had last week, but we're well-prepared in this country to respond.
SABRA LANE: All right. If that declaration is made, Australian researchers will be involved in trying to create a vaccine. Is that right?
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY: Potentially. There is a group at The University of Queensland that have been funded by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the Australian Government to develop approaches to use recombinant virus vaccines. That would certainly be an option that the World Health Organization would explore. But that's still to be determined.
SABRA LANE: How dangerous is this virus? Given that Chinese authorities have admitted it's been transmitted from person-to-person?
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY: Well there's a lot we don't know about this virus at the moment, Sabra. We don't know how efficiently it's transmitted from human-to-human. We don't know whether the cases - which nearly all have risen in Wuhan - how many of them have come from person-to-person or how many have come from the as-yet undetermined animal vector, where we believe the virus originated from. We also don't know how severe it is. We know that there are a lot of mild cases, there are probably mild cases that haven't even been detected. But there have been a relatively small number of severe cases and six deaths. So we know that it can cause a severe illness.
SABRA LANE: How can people prevent it spreading and how can they lower their risk of catching it?
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY: Well at the moment in Australia, there is no evidence that this virus is present. The risks really at present remain particularly focused on people coming from that region of China, particularly the city of Wuhan. That's why we've ramped up biosecurity measures, meeting those three direct flights from Wuhan a week. And anyone who's come from Wuhan or from a city where - or been in contact with anyone with this virus who develops flu-like symptoms should seek medical attention. In Australia, we have well-established procedures to isolate and test for this virus.
SABRA LANE: And that first flight from Wuhan, since the alert was sort of increased, if you like, here in Australia is tomorrow.
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY: Correct.
SABRA LANE: Wuhan is the centre of the outbreak as you've been mentioning. Some other nations are screening passengers, including taking their temperatures before they get off the plane. Is Australia considering measures like that?
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY: We are meeting every passenger, providing information to them, asking them to declare if they've got any symptoms. But we know that an incubation period for a virus like this could be seven days. We know in our experience in swine flu and other epidemics that measuring temperature might pick up a few people but it also misses a lot of people, and it probably doesn't add anything to the biosecurity measures that we've put in place.
SABRA LANE: China seems to have been upfront about this. The President has said containing it is a top priority. It appears to be a complete turnaround from how it handled the SARS outbreak. What do you make of their approach this time?
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY: I think it's admirable. The Chinese are being transparent. They've shared the virus sequence. And they've instituted open and transparent public health response. And I think it's a wonderful development. And as you say, it's quite different to how they dealt with SARS.
SABRA LANE: Just getting back to passengers. How come we won't be screening passengers? That we are relying on those people being upfront and saying yes, I've got symptoms. A lot of people have spent money to come here and they might be anxious about being up front.
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY: We showed in the swine flu pandemic, we picked up less than 10 per cent of people with swine flu that came through by temperature screening. It really isn't very effective. Many people don't have a temperature. It's probably more important to tell people on the flight the information so that if they get symptoms after they arrive that they seek medical attention. Biosecurity officers are trained to identify a sick person coming off the plane, and there's a legal requirement that airlines, if they detect a sick person on a plane they are required to declare that before they arrive. So we have pretty good measures in place and we think they're proportionate.
SABRA LANE: Brendan Murphy, thanks for joining AM.