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

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

… to Darwin yesterday on the Qantas flight from Japan with people from the Diamond Princess. As you know we carefully screened everybody before they left the ship, before they got on the plane, and during the flight.

There is- people also know there has been ongoing presentation of infection on the Diamond Princess cruise ship over the last few days. So, it's not unexpected that some people might have been incubating the virus and when they arrived yesterday at the screening, before going to the Howard Springs facility, six people had some mild symptoms and were tested. Four negative but two people have shown positive tests for the COVID-19 infection.

They are clinically in good condition and both of them will be repatriated into their home states during the course of today to be looked after, as was the agreement with Territory Health.

I should be very clear that, because we always knew there was a risk that people might be incubating the virus, very strong protection was taken during the flight. Passengers wore masks, practiced good hand hygiene. The crew avoided contact with the passengers, except for the AUSMAT health professional team who were very well trained and wore very good personal protective gear. So we're confident that stringent precautions were taken during the flight.

Again because of the- what's been happening over the last week in Japan and on the cruise ship, it's possible that more people could develop positive tests over the next few days. We don't know that but, if they do, we are completely well set up to protect and manage them and isolate them.

I say that the experience of the people who have come back from the cruise ship now will be a lot better than it was when they were locked up in their cabins for two weeks. They're now in a very good facility, appropriately separated and isolated and being well looked after. So I just want to reassure the community that, whilst this is another two cases in Australia - it is a first for some time now - these were expected and we're well placed to manage them. So I'll take questions.

QUESTION:

[Inaudible]

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

One is an older person and one is a younger person and both of them are in clinically reasonable conditions. They're not unwell. But one of them has a partner and they'll be taken back to their home states- two different states and those states will put out announcements later today about more details.

QUESTION:

So, what states were [indistinct]?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

I'll leave it up to the states to announce.

QUESTION:

And how will those flights work? Will they be private flights?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

They will be what we call medevac flights. So they'll be properly trained, small planes with health professionals wearing appropriate protective gear.

QUESTION:

In regards to their flight over from Japan. Were- beyond the masks and the sanitation protection, were people separated at all? I mean, there were quite a few people on that flight who might [indistinct] might now be [inaudible]…

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, certainly the higher risk group – so anyone on that flight who had had contact with anyone who developed the disease on the ship – the team assessed those who are in high risk group, and put them in one separate part of the plane.

But other groups were together on the place. And obviously we will be closely watching the people that were sitting next to those who have developed the disease. But we think the protection that they got was pretty good.

QUESTION:

Minister [sic] one of the concerns has been is how else this virus could in Australia. When you look at the map where there are clear cases and where there are concerns about cases, largely Indonesia - is there a concern on your part that that is where this virus could get into Australia? Given that we don't have the same sort of testing protocols in Indonesia that we have here.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well I think that Indonesia has developed significant testing in recent days. They've tested a large number of people. And I know they're working with the US CDC and other agencies to prove and expand their testing program but they haven't had any cases. But any country that's got significant traffic from China that has significant traffic to Australia is always a concern for us and we're watching it. But we've got no specific information about cases in Indonesia at the moment.

QUESTION:

Just on another country. Japan and South Korea now have the highest number of cases outside of mainland China, excluding the cruise ship. How concerned are you about the Japanese response given that one of the infections occurred, I think, on a party-boat in Tokyo, and may have exposed a large number of people. Is Japan becoming an increasing concern?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Clearly any country that has significant expansion in case numbers is of concern. But both Japan and South Korea have well developed health systems, and I would certainly be confident that they will be onto identifying those cases and chasing contacts - but it's obviously a concern for any country where there is significant further transmission.

QUESTION:

What are the aspects of the travel ban which, obviously, the Government taking your advice, the Department's advice, the experts' advice, on what to do with relation to China. Where do you draw the line though? At what point do other countries become a concern, at what point do you consider trying to close off flights and access to those other countries?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yeah. So, those considerations are made on a daily basis, we have to- we made the advice around the travel bans from China when there was very rapid growth - several hundred cases in other provinces of China. Fortunately, those new case numbers in those other provinces seem to be not growing as quickly now. But we're watching every other country at the moment- there's no other country at this stage that we think has sufficient expansion in numbers to warrant the risk being so high that we would place any additional restrictions.

QUESTION:

So that is the trigger you're looking for, is an expansion, a rapid expansion?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Rapid expansion and total numbers, yeah. But you've got to be- you cannot isolate a country completely. The travel bans obviously from China, we still have Australian citizens coming in from China. The main purpose of the travel bans from China was to substantially reduce the volume of traffic from China so that we can isolate people when they get here. But you cannot completely isolate any country.

QUESTION:

Just on cruise ships - P&O's cancelled a cruise from Singapore to Sydney and I believe another one has also been cancelled - what's your advice to cruise ship companies at this time within the virus?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, I think the cruise industry has already decided not to take on any passengers who've come from mainland China, and I'm sure they'll be looking, themselves, at risks of any passenger groups. So, I think I'll leave it up to them to make their decisions.

QUESTION:

Have you had any communication with them, or?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yes, we have provided advice, particularly around what would happen to cruise ships when they come to Australia, we're obviously concerned about that. But I think they are very seriously looking at all of their policies.

QUESTION:

What are your thoughts on the Chinese travel ban being used for students?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY: 

I think that's a risk-benefit thing that Government will have to consider. At the moment our advice is that it should be maintained and reviewed in the next seven days. As I said, the rate of rise of cases in other provinces of China is not as great as it was before, the new case numbers seem to be growing less aggressively. So, the risk of importation from provinces other than Hubei is probably not as- not quite as great as it was before, but we need to watch that and check. So we're reviewing that all the time to make sure that we have measures that are proportionate.

QUESTION:

So, could we arrive at a situation where the rest of China is allowed to start moving into Australia while Hubei remains [indistinct]-

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

[Interrupts] That's speculation, but I think we would certainly be looking at the data on a daily basis and making recommendations to Government, yeah.

QUESTION:

We've seen developments right around the world, and some in Australia too, on efforts to try and get towards vaccines or treatments on this front. One of them that's been developed is the supply tech company in Melbourne, Firebrick Pharma, that claims to have developed a nasal spray. What do you make of that in these efforts by pharmaceutical companies to try and sell their products as coronavirus cures or coronavirus treatments?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, I think we have to be careful about any claims. I don't know the full details but I believe that company is marketing a reagent - a standard povidone-iodine reagent - which will kill a virus, but there's no evidence that it has any clinic- it's never been tested in clinical trials, as far as I'm aware.

So, we would be very careful about using any reagent that hasn't been shown to have clinical benefits and registered by the TGA.

QUESTION:

Looking further ahead - given the cases in Japan and South Korea - at what point do the Olympics, given the large numbers of people arriving there, become a health concern?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, I think that it's a bit early to say that at the moment. I think, obviously, the Japanese government would be looking at that. But I don't think I can speculate any further on that at the moment.

QUESTION:

What is your point of concern, specifically at the moment, looking at the WHO data on the number of cases around the world? Where are you anticipating the risk of this virus directly coming into Australia could come from?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Well, we know that the cases that we've seen, up until now, all came from visitors from Hubei province, or people who had contact with those. That province is now pretty much locked down by the Chinese authorities, very hard to get anyone out of that province.

Clearly, the next biggest risk would be countries that we've already talked about, where case numbers become significant so that there's sustained community transmission, and people coming to Australia. So we're watching all of the countries in the region, and obviously, provinces outside of China.

We're keeping an eye out, making sure that our doctors and all our health professionals are aware of the travel history of people. So if people have come from a country where there is significant presence of this virus, and they have the right symptoms, we want them tested.

QUESTION:

Does it concern you too, given what we've seen in China in relation to the number of medical practitioners who've been diagnosed with the disease, some have passed away, that shows how easily this disease could be transmitted?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

So, I think we do know that this is a highly transmissible disease. It seems to be significantly more infectious, in terms of transmission, than influenza and certainly more than SARS and MERS were.

Fortunately, the current evidence doesn't suggest that it’s as severe as diseases like SARS and MERS, but this data from Wuhan or Hubei province are concerning. Being, you know, a significant number of deaths, including, as you say, some people who would appear to have not been frail or otherwise unwell.

So, there are clearly some suggestions that fit, healthy people can get the disease. But, we still think that the data from Wuhan and Hubei province are difficult to interpret because we don't really know what the denominator is, we think that there are probably more cases there that are undetected. So the proportion of severe and fatal cases still remains to be determined - because we've seen data from other provinces, and data from exported cases to other countries, which do show some severe cases, and certainly some fatalities but probably not at the same rates as being reported from Hubei.

QUESTION:

What's your opinion on the Chinese Health Commission's decision to change the way it diagnoses some of the patients again?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

I think that was a pragmatic decision that they had made because of the number of cases in Hubei that they included some clinical diagnoses as well.

QUESTION:

But they've since, now, gone back to the old system.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

[Talks over] Yeah, yeah. So, their decisions are obviously made on what's available for them at the time, and I think we're just keeping an eye on that.

QUESTION: 

Are the first lot of people who [indistinct] Howard Springs on track to leave this weekend?

PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY:

Yes. None of them have proven positive, they're all in good health, I'm advised. And unless any of them do become positive in the next few days, which is getting increasingly unlikely, they will be able to leave this weekend.

Thank you very much. 

Contact

National Coronavirus Helpline

Call this line if you are seeking information on coronavirus (COVID-19). The line operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

View contact