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Australia Nobel Prize winner says virus curve will flatten in 'couple of weeks'

21:39  24 march  2020
21:39  24 march  2020 Source:   smh.com.au

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Peter Doherty won the Nobel prize in medicine for his work on the immune system. "I'm a disease and death guy," is how he explains it to the lay person.

So he knows his science. And he isn't afraid to criticise governments that don't respect it. Climate science, for instance.

So what does the eminent Melbourne-based immunologist think of the Australian responses to the coronavirus so far?

Pictures: Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak around Australia

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"Basically, government is stepping up to the plate," he says. The federal government, he quips, is "fit for purpose for a short-term emergency - they're quick to lock people up."

The strict new measures will not produce any instant slowdown in the number of reported cases, he expects.

The number of new infections detected in Australia has accelerated exponentially. It was doubling every five or six days a couple of weeks ago. It's now doubling every three days.

"We may see an upward trajectory for another week - a lot of the people on Bondi may have been infected," says Doherty, who literally wrote the book on the topic - "Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know" - in 2013.

But he expects that the measures introduced this week will work: "With a lag of a week or so, because the average time to [display] symptoms is five to six days and maybe longer," and only people showing symptoms have been allowed tests so far.

So a short-term surge is already baked in.

"I think the steps announced by the Prime Minister and the premiers will dampen this down. I would expect to see the curve flatten in the next couple of weeks, see it start to come down," he says.

Governments have said that they aim to "flatten the curve", meaning to slow the rate of new infections, by controlling gatherings, closing non-essential businesses and ordering social distancing.

"That will mean a lot more people will survive because they will have access to ventilators and proper clinical care over the next 12 to 18 months" in the intensive care wards of the hospital system while awaiting the arrival of a vaccine.

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Professor Doherty cites the example of the effectiveness of such measures in US state of Washington. It was the site of the first big outbreak of COVID-19 in America.

But after Governor Jay Inslee imposed the same social controls as the Morrison government has announced, plus closing the schools, some 10 days ago, the outbreak appears to have been brought in check: "They expected a big surge in cases, but nothing came."

Doherty has been pleased with the intensification of testing in Australia in recent days.

"It's now a matter of time, of numbers and of human behaviour", says Doherty, patron of the Doherty Institute at the University of Melbourne.

Professor Doherty, who trained as a vet, is involved in strategy and advice on the research effort, including the search for a vaccine.

On government support for urgent new research, he says: "Federal and state governments are doing pretty much everything asked of them to drive this research, clinical and diagnostic effort forward."

The Doherty Institute, one of the world's research leaders and the first lab outside China to decode the COVID-19's structure and distribute the data to labs worldwide, has received federal and state funding for research and "a lot of money" from private donors and philanthropists, he says.

Important donors include the Chinese Australian community, the Ramsay Foundation, Chinese billionaire Jack Ma of Alibaba who gave $US3.2 million, and an anonymous donor who gave $1 million.

"We are moving faster on this than on anything in human history. One vaccine in the US is already on trial, it's already gone into people's arms, and the University of Queensland vaccine is being progressed here and with CSIRO," he said.

"Batches are being made by CSIRO now on a scale that will allow us to move rapidly to animal trials and then human trials." Indeed, says Professor Doherty, "it's already in animals and is progressing well".

If 'NSW has to do more' to flatten the curve, 'we will': Gladys Berejiklian

  If 'NSW has to do more' to flatten the curve, 'we will': Gladys Berejiklian New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has made a plea with state residents to "do the right thing" in a bid to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 outbreak."This is a stage where all of us have to be extremely vigilant in making sure we all do the right thing," Ms Berejiklian said.

The US and Australian vaccines "are two completely different technologies, very new, and there are many more being trialled around the world." New ideas are being offered every day, he says.

Testing of any new vaccines is needed, even though it will slow the process, says Doherty. "There's some concern that if we don't tailor this right, you might make it worse in some conditions, so there has to be careful testing."

Expert opinion commonly specifies a 12 to 18-month wait for an effective vaccine to be widely available. "I'm hopeful that we in the global community could be quicker, but that might just be my optimism."

Other urgent clinical work is needed, not just a vaccine, he says. For example, "we need a rapid antibody test for people who've had the virus and recovered".

Why? Because such people, who may not have shown any symptoms and not know that they've had the virus, "are perfectly okay to go out and work and live and do anything - they won't spread the disease".

Some 20-30 percent of the population probably will fall into this category eventually. They could constitute a speedily available workforce and alleviate the economic problem.

And once you have people who've recovered, "you can bleed them, separate off their serum, and give that serum back to vulnerable people". It can be used as a preventative measure to protect people from the virus, so-called "passive immunisation," while a vaccine is still being developed.

While Professor Doherty is deeply involved in all this lab work, he isn't in the lab himself. He's working from home. "People like me, 79 years old and with high blood pressure, still have to be very, very careful." He should know.

Full coverage: Read more on coronavirus from Microsoft News
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Donate: Support UNICEF's coronavirus response effort through Benevity
More info: Read the latest advice on COVID-19 from the Australian Government

If 'NSW has to do more' to flatten the curve, 'we will': Gladys Berejiklian .
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has made a plea with state residents to "do the right thing" in a bid to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 outbreak."This is a stage where all of us have to be extremely vigilant in making sure we all do the right thing," Ms Berejiklian said.

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