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

ALAN JONES: 

Brendan Murphy is on the line. Professor Murphy, good morning.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Good morning, Alan.

ALAN JONES:

Thank you for your time again. The last time I spoke to you we talked about the Director of the Imperial College of London's Centre for Global Infectious Diseases, Professor Neil Ferguson, saying that he believed only five per cent of coronavirus cases were being detected in China. What's your information on that?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY: 

Alan, it's very hard to know. I think what we're seeing is considerable growth in cases in Hubei Province which is the main epicentre that we've been talking about for a while and we think that they are getting better and better at reporting cases from there. But we still believe that there are a large number of mild cases in that province that are probably going undetected. So we're- it's pure speculation how many are undetected, but we think that the case numbers are much greater than the 74,000 in Hubei.

ALAN JONES: 

[Talks over] That's right. That's why I was wanting to talk to you because you see, Dr Wang Chen - and you'd be familiar with this, but my listeners may not be - who is the Director of China's Academy of Medical Sciences seemed to be agreeing with Professor Fergusson when he said quote: even patients who definitely have the disease only come back positive 30 to 50 per cent of the time. So Professor Murphy, as the Chief Medical Officer of the Government, is there something wrong with the way these people are being tested?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Look I think- certainly the test in our hands in Australia is highly reliable and we believe it to be the case in most countries. I can't really comment on the testing regime in Hubei. All I know is that they have been overwhelmed with case numbers and so they've had a big backlog in testing and sometimes they're making a diagnosis on clinical grounds rather than laboratory tests. But I think we can be pretty confident that the tests we've got now in Australia is very sensitive and very accurate.

ALAN JONES:

So, what is that test? Are you using this nucleic acid test?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Correct, correct. We're using tests taking a sample from the patient's respiratory tract - a throat swab or a nose swab and doing what we call a PCR test that looks for the genetic material of the virus.

ALAN JONES:

Right. Now, Dr Wang said that the so-called nucleic acid test was less than reliable. So on its own, you're saying, that it is not adequate but you're augmenting that?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:  

No. I think we are saying that the tests that we've developed - we've got some of the best testing labs in the world - we're very confident that the test we've got at the moment is performing well. We've got no evidence to suggest we're missing any cases with the test.

ALAN JONES:

Right. So who is being tested?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

So at the moment, we're testing anybody who has come from mainland China and now, increasingly from other countries with significant numbers, obviously Japan and Thailand and some other countries. Now, if they have the right set of contacts or the right set of symptoms- so people with a respiratory symptom, a fever or a cough, particular if they've come from mainland China in the last two weeks.

ALAN JONES:

So on the testing front are you suggesting- I mean we're not talking immodestly here, factually, are you thinking that Australia’s ahead of the pace? Because I read last night this paper by the Centre for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard University in the United States, saying that fewer than half of all coronavirus sufferers are being detected. And this was making reference not just to China but to the rest of the world including us, Australia, fewer than half. Are we doing better than that?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

We don't believe that we're missing and it's quite- it's obviously possible that if someone had been in contact of a case in China has come here and was well and not- didn't have significant symptoms, they may not present to testing. We don't know whether there might be some undetected cases in Australia but we've got a very high threshold for testing at the moment. And the good thing is we haven't detected anybody for well over a week now.

ALAN JONES:

Right. But just going back to those words you used which are the words that this paper from Harvard used: undetected cases. So may there be - and this is what's worrying people - I'm talking, for example, about boarding schools, I mean kids are coming back to boarding schools, they're coming back to university and so on. May there be - and we don't want to accelerate the disposition of fear - but maybe- may there be undetected cases somewhere around Australia if what the Harvard paper is saying is true?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

It's always possible, Alan, but the risk- the main epicentre of this disease is locked down; Hubei province - you can't get out of. The numbers of cases in other parts of China and other countries is pretty low. And so the risk of someone coming here with the virus, except if they've come from Hubei or from that cruise ship, is quite low. And we're on the lookout for anyone with relevant symptoms in testing. But of course, it's possible that there are some but if they do develop the disease, we can test them and isolate them.

ALAN JONES:

Right. See why- why you are- I'm sorry, this is not flattering you but why you are important is that- and the reason I'm talking to you is that to overcome this, as I said, disposition towards fear, you've got people worried about travelling so the tourism industry is in trouble. You've got suburbs in Sydney like Eastwood and Ryde where there are, you know, population of Chinese; you've got Chinese restaurants and so on reporting downturns; you've got people frightened of the fish markets. There are all these issues and they need to be assured that the kind of risk that's in their mind may not be actually in reality.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

You're absolutely right, Alan, there is no evidence whatsoever at the moment of community transmission from person to person in the general community in Australia. So people can go about their business. They don't need to go around wearing masks. We've got a rule in the Health Department now that if anyone goes out to dinner, we go to Chinese restaurants …

ALAN JONES:

[Talks over] Good on you. Good on you.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

… because there is no risk at all at the moment.

ALAN JONES:

Okay. That's fantastic. That's why we're talking to you. Just one final thing then coming back to the point I make. So what are you saying to the mums and dads who are sending their kids back to school or university, knowing that the education system in Australia has about 800,000 international students?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well I think at the moment, we- a lot of those students have- we've still stopped some of them coming back into Australia from Mainland China. We're reviewing that on a regular basis. But those that did come back before our travel ban were well beyond the incubation period of the virus. So I would think that there is minimal to no risk really in a school or university environment at the moment.

ALAN JONES:

Okay. Just finally, going around your daily life, what are you saying to people, there's a couple of million people listening to you all across Australia, what are you saying to people?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

I'm saying that obviously we're watching very closely what's happening in China and other countries because that really determines how this outbreak will go but in Australia, we have a really good health system and we've been very good at detecting and isolating and getting on top of cases that come here. But obviously, it's a concern what's happening in China.

ALAN JONES:

Okay. Good to talk to you and we'll talk again if need be. Really grateful for your time, Brendan.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Thank you.

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