Date published: 
17 September 2020
Media event date: 
16 September 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

CARRIE BICKMORE:

Back home, a new study released today by high-ranking Aussie experts has got a lot of people wondering if they may have been infected with COVID-19 without even knowing it.

WALEED ALY:

Officially, there have been just shy of 27,000 cases of COVID-19 in the country since 22 January this year. But this new research, funded by the Federal Government, suggests that back in July, when there were officially only 11,190 cases, the real figure might have been as high as 71,400 cases.

IAN COCKBURN:

People who had a cold in March or April, they might have essentially disregarded it and assumed they didn't have coronavirus. So, it's definitely clear that many people, even with the best will in the world, may not have simply come forward for testing.

WALEED ALY:

The possibility of higher levels of asymptomatic infection could add fuel to calls to ease restrictions sooner. If it's accurate, it suggests Australia has had a much higher infection rate without overwhelming our hospitals.

IAN COCKBURN:

To me, it's very telling. [Indistinct] I think have died in the second wave and only 20,000 cases have been reported. And so that suggests a mortality rate of 3 per cent. And we know that the true mortality rate in a system like Australia, where you have good hospitals, is around 0.5 per cent. We're almost certainly missing a large proportion of people who have the virus.

WALEED ALY:

But the study hasn't been peer-reviewed and its sample size is small and not very broad. At just 2991 people, all of them elective surgery patients, and about two-thirds from only NSW and Victoria. There is a lot of margin for error. So if it could help ease restrictions sooner, should we dig deeper into the asymptomatic unknowns?

CARRIE BICKMORE:

Dr Nick Coatsworth is the country's Deputy Chief Medical Officer and was involved in this study. Thanks for joining us, Nick. Your report suggests heaps more people might have had the virus than first thought. What have you taken away from these findings? Does it change how we do things?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well, potentially, Carrie. But we need more information. What this study has done, it's taken a sample of around about 2900 Australians undergoing elective surgery and found that five of those had positive antibodies to COVID-19. None of them had a positive nasal swab. So, what it actually means is that there could be a number of people out there who didn't have many symptoms who have positive antibodies.

PETER HELLIAR:

Nick, I don't want to sound impatient, but do you think this study could possibly lead to an easing of restrictions?

NICK COATSWORTH:

I don't think so. I don't think we can base an easing of the restrictions at this point just on this study. But the University of New South Wales Kirby Institute will be able to provide us more information in the coming weeks, I understand, which will help us understand how many Australians have actually been in contact with this virus.

RACHEL CORBETT:

Nick, I understand you and the other state CHOs have worked out a way to define hotspots moving forward. Can you tell us a bit about that?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well, the discussion about hotspots has been ongoing now for many weeks. It is going to be important that we eventually come to some consensus on the definition of what a hotspot is. That is obviously going to help us move forward on many issues. But let's be honest, it's going to be primarily about the borders and getting some commonality in practice.

WALEED ALY:

I'm tempted to ask you what definition you are proposing, but then I realise that in this format, it'll probably be way too complicated and too long for us to understand. So maybe the quicker way of asking it is: would the definition you've proposed mean that people could go, for example, from the ACT or New South Wales, into Queensland without having to quarantine?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Well, the definition that we've proposed would put that decision with the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. It is a little bit complicated, Waleed, to go through on air at the moment, and hopefully we will be able to have more to say in the coming days and weeks on it.

PETER HELLIAR:

Nick, Waleed doesn't like complicated stuff. Tell me.

WALEED ALY:

No, no, don't answer, Nick. It was perfect when you did not answer that question. Before we let you go, I noticed today that you said that the response to the pandemic in Australia, but also in Victoria, has been an example to the world, which struck me as an interesting thing to say, because obviously the Victorian response has been quite controversial. What do you mean by that, particularly as regards Victoria?

NICK COATSWORTH:

Yeah, I think that's an important question. And I mean, the response of the Victorian community has been an exemplar, that's for sure. It has been largely the adherence to Stage 4 restrictions that have controlled this. But then look at what happened in Victorian hospitals where, despite some significant numbers of healthcare worker infections, people were still able to provide a very high quality of care. People got intensive care when they needed it, and we have had amongst the lowest number of people die in intensive care. Clearly, some have, but the lowest number in the world. So, if you get SARS-CoV-2 in Australia and you go into intensive care, overwhelmingly, you're likely to come out again. So, despite the Victorian second wave- we're seeing numbers now in France of course; 10,000 a day. So we certainly didn't reach anywhere near that in the Victorian second wave and the rest of the country has obviously done particularly well with very low case numbers.

CARRIE BICKMORE:

Alright Nick, it’s always a pleasure. Thanks for your time.

NICK COATSWORTH:

Thanks, Carrie.

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