Chief Medical Officer’s update on novel coronavirus

Read the transcript of Professor Brendan Murphy's doorstop about novel coronavirus.

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BRENDAN MURPHY: [Inaudible] Four elsewhere in China. The average age of the deaths, the median age I should say is 71 and one half years, which suggests that they're in an elderly population in the main. Although there have been some young people in that group. There are 54 exported cases now in a range of countries, generally in small numbers. In Australia, there are now five confirmed cases: four in New South Wales, in Sydney, currently at Westmead Hospital and one in Melbourne in Monash Medical Centre. I'm advised that all five remain stable. There are a number of other Australians who have been tested and have been negative.

I've been regularly updating the Prime Minister, the Minister for Health, and Government on the developments. I think one thing we are noticing is that in China, whilst more than half the cases are still in the Hubei province, we are seeing increasing numbers across the other provinces in China. We still don't know whether those increasing numbers are due to people who've come from the Hubei province, left that province before it was locked down and developed symptoms. There is still no evidence yet of sustained human to human transmission outside of the Hubei province. In Australia, our focus, as I've said on many occasions, is the early detection of anyone who may have come from China, particularly the Hubei province, within the last two weeks; the incubation period being up to 14 days. And our message remains the same: if you develop flu-like symptoms, fever, cough, contact either your GP or your local emergency department, tell them before you come that you've had a relevant travel history to China and attend to be tested. The majority of people that have been tested turn out to be negative.

We have increased some of the border measures today. As we've previously advised, every flight from China now is being met by border security officers who are going on the plane and distributing information to every passenger trying to identify any unwell passengers. The airlines are also required to identify any unwell passengers and if they are unwell, there's a process of screening them. Every passenger on those flights from China is given an information sheet in Chinese and Mandarin, sorry, Mandarin and English and told to undertake, to watch themselves, and to contact their doctor or their emergency department should they develop symptoms over the following 14 days. In addition, because there are some people who could come from China via other countries, and other ports within 14 days, we are now making announcements in the arrivals halls of airports, again in English and Mandarin, pointing out that anyone who may have come from China from whatever flight or whatever port they're on, pointing out the risks and identifying that there is printed material available for them to collect at the airport if they have come from China so that all of the people who may have come from China can get that information.

Again, we have no evidence there's a risk to the Australian public. There's no human to human transmission that's been identified in this country. I convened this afternoon the Australian Health Protection Principle Committee and we have been looking at the data, and as I said, the concern, I think, is the number of cases outside of the Hubei province in China, and that's why we are starting to look at people who have come from parts of China other than Hubei as potentially at risk. Although, our focus still remains on that Hubei province of China, which is the epicentre and which is the only place where human to human transmission has been identified.

So I think I might leave it at that and be happy to take any questions.

QUESTION: There's huge numbers of Chinese travellers – 43 flights into Australia today. These messaging and pamphlets, is that really enough to kind of deter this?

BRENDAN MURPHY: Well, I think the important thing is that everybody who comes from China is aware of the risk. The risk is probably greater after they've arrived because most – all of the cases that have been identified to date were perfectly well when they arrived, but they have all presented to doctors or emergency departments on the basis of their knowledge of the risks. So, the most important thing is to get that information out there. So we feel that that is a proportionate measure.

QUESTION: Should we be quarantining these passengers when they arrive?

BRENDAN MURPHY: There is no evidence to suggest that- and I'm not aware of any first world country that's doing that. I don't think there's sufficient evidence of the risk. I think, as I said before, now that the Chinese Government has locked down the Hubei province, which is where the majority of these people have come from, it's quite hard to get out of China from those at-risk areas, and we think the risk of someone coming on current flights is probably very low. So you might be quarantining thousands of people for little benefit.

QUESTION: Do you think like Rome and other cities we should cancel Chinese New Year celebrations here?

BRENDAN MURPHY: We don't believe that there is any reason to cancel any public gatherings. There is no evidence of human to human transmission in Australia. Were there evidence of human to human transmission, that's a very different matter.

QUESTION: Because there were 11 people in Melbourne being tested today. Are those people now clear or?

BRENDAN MURPHY: I haven't got the final update. All I know is that as of half an hour ago, there were no other highly probable cases in Australia. But there are being people tested every day and there will be more probably that turn out to be positive.

QUESTION: Is that the same situation then in Perth? We were told there were four people in isolation there.

BRENDAN MURPHY: I think – I'm advised that one of the people being tested in Perth may be positive and the others look like they may be negative but that's still to be confirmed.

QUESTION: The Chinese Health Commission is now saying that people can be contagious during the incubation period. Is that something that you accept and does it change your response at all?

BRENDAN MURPHY: Again, the expert panels that met later today were not convinced of that at the moment. They were not convinced that evidence is being presented. It would be very unusual because this virus is similar to the SARS and MERS viruses and they were not infectious before symptoms. And the evidence that we've seen doesn't suggest there's clear proof of that. But we're urgently seeking urgent advice from the World Health Organization and international experts because if that were to be the case, it would have implications for how we do contact tracing.

QUESTION: Do you urge people to contact their GP's not emergency departments but another the message that the public is receiving, do not call or visit or GP, call this helpline. Is there a bit of a mix messaging, what should people be doing?

BRENDAN MURPHY:  No, I think we are saying, if you're unwell. The hotline is if you want information generally just to find out about it and get general information. But if you have come back from China, particularly the Hubei Provence in the last two weeks and you develop a fever, cough or respiratory symptoms, you need to get tested. And that's when we say you should ring your general practitioner or your emergency department, say that you are someone who's recently returned from China, particularly Hubei Provence and ask for advice about coming in to be isolated and tested.

QUESTION: Were you told that there was a patron at the Australian Open, at the tennis yesterday that was taken off and is now in isolation. Do you know about this, can you tell us what the situation is?

BRENDAN MURPHY: I have no knowledge of that sorry.

QUESTION: So you don't know if the paramedic could be infected as well?

BRENDAN MURPHY: I have no knowledge of anything at the Australian Open. I'm sorry, I can try and find out.

QUESTION: New South Wales is now urging parents to not send their kids to school if they've been in contact with anyone who's a confirmed case. And there's also a petition circulating around Melbourne calling for any kids who have just come back from the area to not be sent to school for about two weeks. Are these reasonable responses.

BRENDAN MURPHY: So again the expert committee, that met earlier today, all of our viral and infectious disease experts, they have confirmed their position which is that any child that has been a contact of someone who has this disease should be excluded from school for 14 days. But children who are well who have not had any contact or any exposure to an infected person that may have come back from China, should not be excluded. That remains the position of every jurisdictional department at the moment.

QUESTION: What about advice to unis and more so to students.

BRENDAN MURPHY: So our advice to universities is again anyone who's come back from China, students particularly those who are from the Hubei Province, should be very aware of the risks. That they should monitor themselves and if they become unwell with any of these symptoms, they should do the same as anybody else. They should contact their GP or the university medical centre or the local hospital and go and be tested.

QUESTION: We understand that the relatives of people who have been in contact with the confirmed case in Victoria haven't all been tested, does that sound right to you? Or would all kind of immediate family – ?

BRENDAN MURPHY: [Interrupts] There probably isn't the basis to test people. What the public health authorities do is they closely monitor the direct contacts. Make sure that again a child wouldn't go to school, if they're not exposing health care facilities or public places and they would monitor them to see if they develop any symptoms. There probably isn't any value testing someone early on in the exposure.

QUESTION: Is testing an expensive process?

BRENDAN MURPHY: Testing is being done by public health laboratories at no cost to the consumers. So the governments collectively around the country are paying for testing.

QUESTION: But for governments, I guess my question is, are they holding off for, like a combined for a cost and reasonable – ?

BRENDAN MURPHY: [Interrupts] No government is holding off on costs. This is a public health issue of grave concern, and we have in Victoria, Victoria infectious diseases research lab, which is our major national centre is working 24 hours a day testing at the moment. So no expense is being spared for testing.

QUESTION: What's the median age of the Australians who have or the people in Australia who have tested positive for this virus.

BRENDAN MURPHY: So there are only five of them. The youngest is a university student, a female. The rest are all males and I can't remember exactly but I think they're ranging from about mid 30’s to about 60, but I would have to confirm that again, I haven't got that information with me today.

QUESTION: Do they have any other health problems or issues?

BRENDAN MURPHY: I'm advised that they are stable and they're not seriously unwell and I'm not aware of any other health conditions that they might have.

QUESTION: Could I just ask as well, there's many people who book and make GP appointments over the internet. I gather you're insisting that they pick up the phone?

BRENDAN MURPHY: We do not want people to book over the internet and just turn up to a GP's surgery. We want everybody who is unwell and has had the relevant travel history to notify the GP or the emergency department before they attend for testing.

QUESTION: Have all GP's been sort of briefed? And have you asked the AMA been able to reach all the GP's?

BRENDAN MURPHY: So just yesterday we, I wrote a personal letter to every GP and emergency physician. And the colleges, the relevant colleges circulated those through their networks, providing updates to them and providing messages. We've also provided mass information in the past but this was further messaging. The AMA, the college of GP's, the college of rural and remote medicine, the college of emergency medicine have been incredibly positive and cooperative in trying to get that message out. Just today, we've also sent a similar message to all of our pharmacists, because a lot of people who develop flu-like symptoms will attend pharmacies for advice and we're making sure that the pharmacists are aware of what advice to give, which is to recommend that the people call ahead to the GP or ED before they go and get tested.

QUESTION: I'm hoping you didn't send those letters via Australia Post?

BRENDAN MURPHY: We have electronic communications. Thanks Hannah, thanks very much everybody.


Secretary of the Department of Health and Aged Care

Professor Brendan Murphy AC is the Secretary of the Department of Health and Aged Care.

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