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

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

We’ve just completed a meeting with the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which consists of all the senior public health officials in every state and territory in the Commonwealth and a range of technical experts. And I've also just finished briefing the Prime Minister, Minister Hunt, the Minister for Health, and the Foreign Minister on the discussions at that meeting and the current latest data.

So, the latest data out from China is that there are now 844 cases worldwide: 830 in China, 14 cases in locations outside of China, and you can see some of those on our map up on the wall there. There are now 25 deaths ­ 24 of which have been in Wuhan, the main epicentre of this outbreak, and one in someone in Beijing. And again, the story around the deaths are that they have pretty much been in elderly people or people with other medical conditions. People who are generally frail. That's the word we're getting from China. Approximately 25 per cent of people who contract this infection and who have been detected and diagnosed seem to get a more severe illness. But we do know, or we do suspect, that there are a number of additional cases that are so mild that they haven't come to attention and been detected or diagnosed at the moment.

You will have heard that the WHO Emergency Committee met again overnight and decided yet again not to declare a public health emergency of international concern. That doesn't mean, in any way, that they're not taking this seriously. In fact, they made it very clear, the director-general made it clear, that they do see this is a serious issue and they are upping some of their responses. They're sending in a new specialist team in, and they believe the country should be prepared and taking action as we are. So, of course, it doesn't change our response in Australia. But they feel that unless there's more sustained human- or evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission in countries outside of China, that there are some technical reasons why it doesn't fulfil the criteria for meeting that definition of, a public health emergency of international concern. So, that's the current situation internationally.

In Australia, we still have no confirmed cases. There are several patients who are being tested every day. People who've had a relevant travel history and who have developed respiratory symptoms. None of those have turned out to be positive. But as I've said on previous occasions, should we get a positive case in Australia, we are extremely well-prepared to isolate and manage them. The Health Protection Principle Committee discussed a range of materials which are now on our Department of Health website. There's now good clinical guidelines. We've provided new information to every health practitioner, relevant health practitioner, in the country and emergency department, and there's a lot of new information up on our website.

So, that's the situation at the moment. It's pretty much as it's been over the last few days. As more information comes out from China, as they get more diagnostic information, we always expect the case numbers to increase. And the nature of the disease doesn't seem to be showing any signs of changing. It is of concern that there are some cases outside of China, but they are small numbers and they are being well-managed in those locations.

So, I'll leave it there, and happy to take any questions.

QUESTION:

You said this morning that the WHO was split on whether to declare a public health emergency. Just explain that.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, I think the Emergency Management Committee- the director-general, said that they were divided. Some of the members felt that it was worth declaring. Others felt that, because of these technical reasons, that it wasn't quite ready. But he made it very clear that that didn't make any difference to the fact the WHO regards this as a very significant issue and that people should be responding.

QUESTION:

So, what powers would declaring something like that give them? What would the practical difference be?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:  

It really ¬ I don't think it would make an awful difference on top of what they're already doing because they're already activating the sort of things that they would do in that circumstances. I think the big difference is, in a public health emergency of international concern, if there are lots of foci of transmission outside of the one area, there's greater international coordination required. And that's probably not necessary at the moment. Every country is responding appropriately.

QUESTION:

You mentioned the WHO upping their response and sending a new specialised team. What is that new specialised team; what are they going to be doing?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, I think the director-general this morning talked about sending an expert team particularly to try and identify the source. We still- they're still not clearly identified what animal, vector, and how the disease originally came across, but also to assist the Chinese. The Chinese, as we've said on many occasions, have been incredibly open and willing to get assistance. So, the WHO has been doing that as well as- they are activating some of their networks to look at the potential of vaccine development and the like.

QUESTION:

As you observe what's going on and see a lot of these cities in China being locked-down, shutdown, in quarantine ¬ what's your response to that? Is that a good idea, is it a bit too extreme; it's called unprecedented.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

It is unprecedented, and I suspect it might be more difficult to do in Australia than it might be in China. But I think it has made a big difference to us, because it means that the potential of travel to Australia of people from that big epicentre is significantly reduced. So, we had put in place, as you know, a range of border measures to deal with those direct flights from Wuhan. They were enacted yesterday, but we don't need to do that now. We are very aware, however, because the cases have been seen in parts of China other than Wuhan, and in other countries we have to be aware that a person could come from another port into Australia. So, we are making sure that these warnings are up on all of our borders, and that our border security officials are well briefed.

QUESTION:

With that 14 cases ¬ number 14 cases outside of China, is that expected to increase, given all the trouble ¬ the Lunar New Year?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Look, I think the pattern over the last week would suggest that we're likely to see more cases outside of China. I think that's the pattern we've observed. And you can never be sure about anything, but I think that's likely.

QUESTION:

Even with the lockdown and quarantine?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yes, I think because there will be people ¬ incubation period of these sort of viruses, and there are people who will have left Wuhan before the lockdown who might be in other places, yep.

QUESTION:

And how long do you expect this situation to run for? What's the kind of-

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

You can't be sure. I think we have to, you know- if we start to see- we suspect that we'll see increasing numbers of cases for some time, but eventually hopefully it will peak and we'll see a plateauing. But these things are very hard to predict, and predictions are often proven to be wrong. So, we're just keeping a watching brief and responding as appropriately.

QUESTION:

And is there a risk that, as it does go on, that the virus mutates and becomes more severe? Or are those concerns misplaced?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Look, there's always a risk with a virus that's novel to the human species. And in the experience of SARS, there were what were called super-spreaders, some mutations that were very infectious. There's no clear evidence that that's happened with this virus at the moment, but that's always a risk, yep.

QUESTION:

You said they're trying to work out the source of what animal it started in. How important is it to figure that out? What would that do in the context of this?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, it would help ensuring that that source can be completely dealt with. Now, the markets have been closed, so ¬ but it would help in future prevention of outbreaks.

QUESTION:

And there are some cases being investigated in New South Wales ¬ I think four at the moment. How concerned should people be about those investigations, and…?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

I don't think there should be concern. I think these people have all had travel history, relevant travel history. They're all likely to have come from outside. If one or more are eventually found to be positive, New South Wales Health will- has very well-established practices. They'll be quarantined and looked after.

QUESTION:

You mentioned that peak ¬ do you think that's going to happen in the Lunar New Year, given we probably won't see that kind of travel again for at least…

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

I wouldn't want to predict. Predictions in these things are very dangerous.

QUESTION:

And just on finding if someone's positive or not, you mentioned yesterday a one-step test. Are we likely to know within one to two days?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yes, I think that we heard our briefing today, that the testing has matured, and the laboratories now believe that they can get an answer which is good enough to act on within the same day now.

QUESTION:

Right.

QUESTION:

How confident are you in the accuracy of the figures coming out of China on how many infections they have?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well I think as I’ve mentioned we are ¬ we always believe there are likely – it’s not just because of reporting, but in a case like this there are likely to be underestimations of the true numbers where there are likely to be milder cases because we know there are many mild people with this disease that probably haven’t been counted or even tested. So, we believe, and nobody has any reason to not believe, the Chinese are being incredibly open and I think the reason the numbers have gone up a lot recently is they’re just getting on top of the data and reporting it better. I don’t think there’s any suggestion that anything is being hidden.

QUESTION:

How would you characterise the difference between their reaction this time and the SARS pandemic?  

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Very different. The international community has really praised China for their prompt and transparent action.

QUESTION:

We never saw a vaccine developed for SARS. Are we likely to see one developed now?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well I think it depends on how long this disease lasts in its active stage. We certainly have better technology now to develop vaccines there’s new recombinant technology that can produce vaccines in theory within, you know, a turnaround of 16 to 20 weeks.  

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