Two suspected cases of ‘fleeting’ transmission of the virus in Victoria have been reclassified as false positives, raising hope that the spread of the latest outbreak might not be as alarming as previously thought.
As Melbourne enters its second week of lockdown on Friday – with restrictions eased in regional Victoria – an expert panel’s review of the two cases in the outbreak that had risen to 63 found the people were not even infected.
The examples were among a handful of cases cited to justify a seven-day extension to the Melbourne lockdown. They were considered evidence of COVID spreading between strangers in a way not previously seen.
Meanwhile, in an abrupt shift, the federal government appears close to an agreement to hand over the $200 million requested by Victoria to build standalone quarantine for returning travellers.
The Australian reports Scott Morrison will commit to the 500-bed facility at Avalon Airport – rather than at Mickleham, north of Melbourne, as hoped by the Victorian government – in a plan being finalised ahead of Friday’s national cabinet meeting.
Melbourne’s lockdown had been due to end midnight Thursday but was extended for several reasons, including fears the current outbreak could “explode” because of its highly infectious nature.
Victorian COVID-19 testing commander Jeroen Weimar cited up to five cases of suspected “stranger-to-stranger transmission” to show the Indian (or Kappa) variant that has broken out in Melbourne was more contagious and faster moving.
“People are brushing past each other in a small shop, they are going to display homes, they are looking at phones in a Telstra shop,” he said on Tuesday.
“This is very, relatively speaking, fleeting contact. They do not know each other’s names and that is very different from what we have seen before.”
However, just hours before the city began its second week of the shutdown on Friday, Victoria’s Department of Health dropped the bombshell that will prompt fresh scrutiny of the seven-day extension.
Health authorities initially thought a woman caught COVID-19 at a Metricon display home at Mickleham, in Melbourne’s north, two days after it was also visited by an infected person.
They had also believed a man similarly picked up the virus at Brighton Beach Hotel, in the city’s bayside, despite it being a well-ventilated, outdoor venue.
However, an expert panel has confirmed neither person was even infected, lowering the Victorian outbreak to 61 infections.
The COVID-free pair and their primary close contacts will be released from isolation and associated exposure sites removed from official lists. They include several in Anglesea, on the Great Ocean Road, where people had rushed to get tested.
The Metricon display home and Brighton Beach Hotel remain linked to other confirmed cases and will remain exposure sites.
Hope of early end to lockdown
Two epidemiologists told the ABC the false positives were good news for a potential earlier end to Melbourne’s lockdown.
Deakin University epidemiology chair Catherine Bennett said it showed “we are even closer to the leading edge of this outbreak”.
Epidemiologist Tony Blakely, from the University of Melbourne, told the ABC: “Maybe we’ll get out of this lockdown before another week is up.
“Things now look a little bit better and maybe we won’t need another week lockdown. But it’s impossible to predict that accurately.”
Victoria’s health department says authorities always enact immediate health measures for every positive case.
“Those cases can be re-evaluated, their test results can be re-run and further investigations and reviews conducted to confirm their true nature,” it said.
Chief health officer Brett Sutton has repeatedly described the variant as a “beast”, while his deputy, Allen Cheng, estimated it was probably 50 per cent more infectious than the strain that led to the city’s 112-day lockdown in 2020.
“If we let this thing run its course, it will explode,” Acting Premier James Merlino said when announcing the lockdown extension on Wednesday.
“We’ve got to run this to ground because if we don’t, people will die.”
State Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien has been critical of the “apocalyptic” language used to describe the Indian variant, and rejoiced at news of the “false positives”.
“If the basis for the lockdown extension turned out to be false, it should end. Time for the Labor government to be upfront with Victorians,” he tweeted.
Agreement close on Vic quarantine facility
A standalone quarantine centre for Victoria is a step closer with the federal government handing a memorandum of understanding to the state.
The Victorian government put the proposal to the federal government in late April. A site at Mickleham, north of Melbourne, was its preferred option ahead of a second at Avalon Airport, near Geelong.
Victoria wants the Commonwealth to spend $200 million to fund and build the 500-bed facility. The Australian reports on Friday a deal appears close.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is reportedly ready to sign off on a commitment to fund the build, which could start by September. The centre would open in January.
Victoria would be required to fund the centre’s operations – and it would run “over and above” current hotel quarantine.
Mr Merlino said he had a brief discussion with Mr Morrison about alternative quarantine arrangements on Wednesday night.
Mr Merlino said the Avalon proposal would work equally well as the Mickleham option.
“That is a call for the federal government,” he said.