It may seem like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster, but the Royal Australian College of GPs has issued a call for the Commonwealth to adequately prepare the nation and its medical practitioners for further cases of the coronavirus, which has seen the largest mass quarantine in history, highlighting challenges to national security.
While details out of China remain sketchy, authorities around the world remain vigilant as information and confirmed cases begin to filter through to the public, raising concerns about a new global pandemic.
Ground zero for the disease, the Chinese city of Wuhan with a population of approximately 11 million has been placed under a quarantine – which has seen flights, long-haul buses and trains from the city canceled, while roads have been blockaded and residents have been told not to travel without special reason.
Building on this unprecedented quarantine effort, the Chinese authorities have expanded the quarantine to the neighbouring cities of Huanggang (population 6 million) and Ezhou (population 1 million) following an increasing rate of transmission and growing body count.
Meanwhile, disturbing imagery showing bewildered Chinese medical experts struggling to keep pace with the rate of infection and a growing death toll, combined with rumours of Chinese government secrecy regarding the number of infected and deaths, is prompting concerns about the disease.
Internationally, the disease has already spread to the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, Singapore, France and several south-east Asian nations and has prompted the World Health Organisation (WHO) to issue the following advice:
“It is expected that further international exportation of cases may appear in any country. Thus, all countries should be prepared for containment, including active surveillance, early detection, isolation and case management, contact tracing and prevention of onward spread of 2019-nCoV (coronavirus) infection, and to share full data with WHO.”
The long lead time between initial infection and becoming symptomatic (between one and 14 days, according to China’s Health Commissioner Ma Xiaowei), during which period the infected apparently remains infectious, presents challenges for medical practitioners as individuals may not appear to be ill but could be infectious.
This was reinforced by Minister Xiaowei, who explained to media, “According to recent clinical information, the virus’s ability to spread seems to be getting somewhat stronger.”
However, Australia’s Chief Medial Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, has disputed such claims, stating, “The expert panels that met today were not convinced of that. It would be very unusual because this virus is similar to the SARS and MERS viruses and they were not infectious before symptoms.”
Despite these reassurances, the WHO has stated: “Human-to-human transmission is occurring, and a preliminary R0 estimate of 1.4-2.5 was presented. Amplification has occurred in one healthcare facility. Of confirmed cases, 25 per cent are reported to be severe. The source is still unknown (most likely an animal reservoir) and the extent of human-to-human transmission is still not clear.”
Nevertheless, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has called on the Commonwealth to urgently release the nation’s emergency medical mask stockpile as GP clinics around the nation prepare to be swamped by potential coronavirus infections – with the masks serving as a crucial barrier in stopping the spread of the disease.
While Professor Murphy was quick to state that there was “no evidence of sustained human-to-human transmission outside of China’s Hubei province”, Dr Harry Nespolon, president of the RACGP, explained to the Sydney Morning Herald: “The thing we need most as GPs is some masks. They are not readily available. They are not easy to get. And I gather the Commonwealth has 10 million stored at the moment. This is the time they should be distributing some.”
No cause for panic
Australian biosecurity, border security and health authorities have responded to the challenges, with varying protocols for screening beginning with inbound flights. However, some individuals appear to have slipped through the cracks, with a small but growing number of infections around the country.
Despite this, Professor Murphy clearly stated: “There is no need for alarm, and the risk to the Australian public from this novel coronavirus remains relatively low.”
A total of 18 people have been tested for the virus in NSW, with 12 having been cleared; nine people in Queensland have been tested, with all returned negative results for coronavirus, though authorities are awaiting results from another potential case.
Additionally, four people in South Australia were being tested, but authorities believe they are unlikely to have the virus; one man has been checked in a Hobart hospital.
The Australian government has raised the travel alert level to “do not travel” for the city of Wuhan and the entire Hubei province. It has also ordered 1 million additional P2 face masks.
Further to these precautions, both RACGP president Dr Nespolon and independent senator for South Australia Rex Patrick have called for all direct flights from China to be screened by biosecurity staff.
Despite the assurances, Australia, like every nation, is at the mercy of mother nature and the emergence of new, deadly strains of disease. This vulnerability serves as yet another challenge to national security and resilience in an increasingly globalised world.
Australia’s position and responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific region will depend on the nation’s ability to sustain itself economically, strategically and politically.
Contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict or lack, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods, and even fewer within modern Australia understanding the sociopolitical and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.
Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
In order to identify the disease, the RGACP provided important information about 2019-nCoV:
- High fever is the most common symptom of the virus, but other symptoms include a cough, breathlessness and sore throat.
- In severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death, the WHO says.
- The virus has an incubation period of one week, meaning people with the bug might not show symptoms over that period.
- All of the confirmed cases have been in adults and no children have been infected.
- In the severe or fatal cases, the people were already sick or had other medical conditions.
Note: Should you feel ill, or may have come into contact with someone who may have been exposed to the coronavirus, please seek medical attention immediately.