Date published: 
26 January 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, thank you for coming this afternoon to get an update on the coronavirus situation. I can report that there have been no new confirmed cases in Australia. The number of four cases; three in Sydney and one in Melbourne remains the same. The four patients, I believe, are all in a stable condition in isolation in hospital. Information just released from China shows, as expected, the number of cases has increased to over 2000 and now 56 deaths.

Nearly all of those deaths are in the Hubei province, which includes the city of Wuhan. That province has been the focal point of this infection. But we do know that there have been more than 40 cases exported to other countries and there have been cases seen in other provinces of China.

As I have advised previously, since the Chinese have essentially locked down Hubei province and stopped people leaving, the risk of infected people who might be incubating the virus coming to Australia remains lower than it was before that time.

However, because people could have left the province before the lockdown and could come to Australia via a number of flights, we are now meeting every flight from China and providing the passengers with an information sheet, asking them to identify themselves if they're unwell on the flight, but also to identify if they become unwell, particularly with fever or cough or other respiratory symptoms after they have been in Australia.

If any of those people with a relevant travel history or have been in contact with someone with this condition gets those symptoms we want them to call ahead to their GP or their emergency department and go and be tested. The chances are they won't have this condition, but the really important thing in Australia is that we identify and be able to isolate people with this virus. We have an excellent public health system in every state and territory with good protocols for isolation and treatment of people.

So, the risk to the Australian population is - there is no risk at the moment other than people  who have come from - with that travel history or have been in contact with people. So there is no cause for general concern, but we are very focused on identifying anyone who may have come with this disease in recent weeks.

QUESTION:

How many people have actually been contacted that were on planes with these people that were travelling?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

At the moment, the Commonwealth has provided information to the Victorian authorities on all of the passengers on the Victorian plane and are providing information on the New South Wales plane - the two planes that are being followed up. I think it's important to note that both the passenger on the Victorian plane and the New South Wales plane didn't develop symptoms until after they landed in Australia. And we do know that it's likely, because this virus is similar to other coronaviruses, that people aren't infectious until they have symptoms. But because these two patients developed symptoms within about 24 hours of arrival, we're being absolutely cautious and contacting those people.

Now, the earlier people to be contacted are those who were sitting within the two rows in front or behind them in the plane because they are the only people with any real potential of any cross-infection. But then we will also contact everyone else who was on the flight later, or the state and territory health authorities will, to ensure that they get information and particularly are reassured.

QUESTION:

Is there any reason why it's taken so long to track down all those passengers and they haven't been contacted?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

To actually get the contact details of the passengers you have to go manually through those arrival cards. You know, those cards that you've all filled in when you arrive in Australia. And then you have to be able to decipher what people have written for their contact details, and that takes a lot of time. But the Victorian health authorities were given the information yesterday, as soon as the Commonwealth finished that. And we're working 24 hours a day to identify those people.   

So the state health authorities are taking their time and contacting, as I said, those people who are at the highest risk - who were sitting close to the people. But we don't really believe the risk of contracting this virus from those other plane passengers is high. It would be much higher if those people had had symptoms or been unwell on the flight, but they weren't.

QUESTION:

There are reports that there have been alerts going out in New South Wales in some areas of - to be wary of coronavirus. Can you explain more about that?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

I'm not aware of those alerts, I'm sorry.

QUESTION:

So there are no new cases at the moment. Do you know how many test results are still waiting to [indistinct]?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Look, this is a moving feast. There have been several tests done every day. I don't actually know how many are being done in the preliminary test or the confirmed test. I'm not aware of any highly likely positive that's being worked up at the moment. But I would not be surprised if there are some more cases because we, knowing what's happened in other countries and knowing the traffic from that part of China to Australia, it's highly likely that we may see some more. But as I've said on many occasions, we are incredibly well-prepared to isolate and deal with that and to prevent any transmission of the virus in this country.

QUESTION:

Considering that the Australian Open is on at the moment, are there any concerns or any contingency plans…

BRENDAN MURPHY:

I don't think any - there's no evidence to suggest that we would need to do that at the moment.

QUESTION:

Once someone contracts coronavirus, how infectious is it? You were talking about two rows before and behind on the plane.

BRENDAN MURPHY:

We're still understanding about this virus. Initially, as you know, in China it was reported that most cases came from an animal species. We now know that there is clear human-to-human transmission. We believe it's when these people are symptomatic, as I said. So if someone is just incubating in the plane, we don't think they're infections. So we- clearly, there is some evidence of infectiousness when people have symptoms and fever. So that's the concern and that's when we would want people who might have come from that area who have symptoms to wear a mask and be isolated.

QUESTION:

Is it a matter of, if someone coughs on you and they've got it you'll get it, or is it airborne?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, again, we don't fully understand everything about this virus, but we believe that it's likely to be aerosol spread. So, coughing on someone would present a risk, but we don't really have good data on the infectivity or how high the risk of human-to-human transmissions is. That data is being developed and being updated at the moment. But we're still understanding this virus fully.

QUESTION:

Are treatment plans changing the more we understand about it?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

There is no available specific treatment for a coronavirus. The treatment is supportive - looking after people, making sure they're isolated, giving them oxygen if they do have pneumonia, and making sure that secondary complications are treated. But it is a supportive treatment at the moment.

QUESTION:

Could we just explain; how does it actually kill someone? It's obviously [indistinct] …

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well again, people, generally speaking, we believe from the reports from China that the people who have severe disease have had a severe lung involvement - a severe pneumonia - and that is likely to lead to other complications, particularly if you have other illnesses and comorbidities, and that's probably the main way of killing people. But we don't fully understand that at the moment.

QUESTION:

At this stage, perfectly healthy people in the prime of their life - should they be concerned, then?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

We, again, as we have said previously, the advice from China is that a significant number of the people who have died have had other illnesses. But probably not all. So like as sometimes happens in influenza, sometimes people who are otherwise healthy can get a serious illness with an infection. But again, we're talking only about people who may have come from China at the moment; we're not talking about people in Australia who haven't come from China or haven't been in contact with someone in another country with this disease being at risk.

So we're not suggesting that people should be worried in Australia at the moment.

QUESTION:

Just going on mathematics, the amount of people on all the flights that have come on that we've now had cases reported on. That's, you know, 800 [indistinct]- I mean 800 people at least. Just on the mathematics, we are expecting more people to get [indistinct] …

BRENDAN MURPHY:

As I've been saying all week, I think it's quite likely we will get some more cases, we just don't know. We just have to be prepared, but I suspect it will be relatively small numbers, but we have to be prepared for whatever happens.

QUESTION:

And should Australians be concerned about the flights that still keep coming from China.

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, I think we- the Chinese authorities have, as I said, locked down the Hubei province. So, that's where the vast majority of these cases are now. We know that there are small pockets in other parts of China but the Chinese authorities are quarantining them. So I suspect the risk of people coming from other parts of China is relatively low. But just to be sure, we're providing that information to all passengers.

QUESTION:

And so, you said that you're not quite sure how many are being contacted on the flights that have come in, including that one on Sunday with the Victorian [indistinct]. Do we know if there's been a struggle to contact some? Because given they've moved on, they might not have registered their correct details, they might not even be in the country still.

BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, these contacts are being done by the relevant state health authorities. So, the Victorian health department and the New South Wales health department. The Commonwealth provides the information from our Border Force, and you'd have to probably ask them how they're going with the contact. But I know they're working flat-out on that at the moment in both states.

QUESTION:

Families of the patients confirmed to have coronavirus haven't been quarantined. Is that decision being changed at all?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

The state health departments are doing contact tracing of those patients, and I can't comment on exactly on what quarantine provisions they are contemplating because that's in their court.

QUESTION:

Okay. And with, you know, [indistinct], what are you guys telling healthcare providers? Because often that's next for transmission. We've seen Chinese healthcare providers already die in contact with the coronavirus. What are you telling doctors, nurses?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, healthcare providers in Australia are well trained to deal with communicable diseases. They are well trained in the use of personal protective equipment and isolation. I have just today, sent a message to every emergency physician, every GP- or about to send later today in the country, giving them an update on this condition and outlining the need to be aware of peoples' travel history and how to deal with people if they come. So, I've been in contact with the presidents of both colleges of GPs, the college of Emergency Medicine, the president of the AMA, and they're all standing by later today to send out these messages.

QUESTION:

The man from Victoria who is confirmed to have it - he went to the GP on Thursday wearing a facemask. And despite that, the doctor still didn't, kind of, have the red flag that this person might have coronavirus. Does that concern you?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Look, I'm not aware of the exact circumstances of that clinical interaction. But that was one of the reasons prompting me to send this message to all doctors today to remind them. We have previously provided information, but we're trying to reinforce it at the moment.

QUESTION:

Would you expect a GP who hasn't picked up coronavirus, which was the case in Victoria, to be facing a bit of, like, disciplinary action?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Look, I can't comment on the circumstances of what happened in that clinical interaction. I don't know the details. So it probably would be speculation.

QUESTION:

Would you be recommending an investigation?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Look, again, I would need to find out what happened in the circumstances before I'd make any comment on that.

QUESTION:

And the US is looking at evacuating its citizens from Japan. Would you support Australia doing the same thing, or is that too risky?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, I'm advised by the Minister for Health that the Foreign Minister, Minister Payne, will be making a statement in relation to Australian nationals in Hubei province later today.

QUESTION:

And do you have any idea what she'll be saying?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

No, I don't. That's in the province of the Foreign Affairs Department. I know that they are actively engaging with our citizens in Hubei province, but it's the Foreign Minister's job to make an announcement about- or statements about that later.

QUESTION:

As a doctor though, do you support that evacuation happening? Or is it too risky?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

I'm not- the Foreign Affairs Department is obviously contacting our people. I don't know the numbers or where they are at the moment. We would need to be- to look at the circumstances before I could make an assessment of that.    

QUESTION:

On a purely practical level, the common facemasks that we're seeing on the people who arrive at airports - are they effective in preventing spread?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

Obviously, there's standard surgical masks are less effective than the properly grades masks that you can buy - the ones that prevent small particles coming in. So, we are always recommending that people use those proper masks.

QUESTION:

So if someone's wearing just that usual surgical mask, they could still be spreading the virus?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

But there's a significantly less-  reduced chance, even from the surgical mask. But it's not complete protection, no.

QUESTION:

Just on, it's probably a little bit out of your realm, but I understand the Matildas are playing over in China and it's been moved, but do you suggest that they should possibly not be going to China at all?

BRENDAN MURPHY:

I don't think I should comment on that. That's a matter for the Matildas.

Thanks very much, everybody. Thanks for coming.

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Chief Medical Officer

Professor Brendan Murphy is the Chief Medical Officer for the Australian Government and is the principal medical adviser to the Minister and Health.

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