730,000 dead: nightmare virus scenario
Australia has succeeded in containing coronavirus to date but travel bans will not be a feasible option if the virus becomes a pandemic, health experts warn.
As Japan, Italy, Iran and South Korea grapple with outbreaks, the Australian government's response to the virus - banning travel from China, quarantining people from disease epicentres and requesting others at risk to self-isolate - appears to be working so far.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said yesterday the 15 Australians who contracted coronavirus in Wuhan had now fully recovered, while another seven who were infected on the Diamond Princess cruise ship only had mild symptoms and were receiving treatment.
With regards to the virus, Australia was in the "best position any country could be in," Mr Morrison said.
Health experts concurred, but warned of the impact of a serious outbreak, given COVID-19 (as coronavirus is now known) has a fatality rate of 2-3 per cent. The 2003 SARS pandemic had a fatality rate of 0.01 per cent.
"If 50 per cent of Australians became infected, that is 492,000 to 738,000 people dying, over 3 million people needing a hospital bed and over 1 million people needing an ICU bed," said Professor Raina MacIntyre, Professor of Global Biosecurity at the University of NSW.
The blanket ban on travellers from China was "the right thing to do", but she supported the phased lifting of the ban in line with the latest medical advice.
"From a health point of view [the travel ban has] been an effective measure," said Professor Allen Cheng, president of the Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases. "How long we can sustain it for is an important question."
Professor Nigel McMillan, Director in Infectious Diseases and Immunology at Griffith University, warned that if the WHO designated COVID-19 as a pandemic, that would necessitate a change of strategy.
"A pandemic is more likely than not now we have spread in several countries. Travel bans will no longer be useful or make sense and so health authorities need to prepare for the next phase," he said.
"This includes preparing our hospitals for a large influx of patients, stockpiling any antivirals (some appear to work to slow the virus), and advising the public that when the time comes they will need to think about things like stay at home if ill, social distancing, avoid large gatherings, etc."
Prof MacIntyre said the outbreaks in places like Italy and Iran should be monitored closely but as yet the infection rates were "nowhere near what they were like in China".
Australia's Chief Medical Officer Dr Brendan Murphy suggested the Iranian outbreak was a cause for some concern, with a relatively high death rate (12 so far) suggesting infection rates there had been under-reported.
If coronavirus becomes a bigger problem, "every country will have their resources stretched, but we are better resourced than other countries," Prof MacIntyre said.
"We also have the advantage of having no land boundaries, so we could hold off a bit longer."
Besides the Christmas Island and Howard Springs quarantine facilities, hotels and old school buildings could be used if there was a need to accommodate more people, she said.
"There are ways of scaling up our quarantine capacity if necessary," she said.
But the danger, she said, was the prospect of community transmission.
"Once it's in, there's no more use for quarantine," she said.
Prof Cheng said if an outbreak occurred in Australia, there were things members of the public could do to be prepared, including making contingency plans for the care of any dependants, obtaining any needed medications in advance, prioritising personal hygiene, and getting the annual flu vaccine from their GP when it becomes available in about one month's time.