Three states, including the nation’s two biggest cities, in lockdown.
A fast-spreading Delta variant with a curve that ‘gold standard’ Sydney just can’t flatten yet. A rare silver lining in record boosts to vaccination rates and Pfizer supplies, but fewer than one in seven Australians fully vaccinated.
More than 18 months into the pandemic, it seems like Groundhog Day in Australia, 2021 bringing the same confusion and controversy as 2020; snap lockdowns, puzzling rules, intra-governmental fighting and more people under stay-home orders than with vaccines in their arms.
But Australia’s leading health experts know more about the coronavirus, and have clearer ideas of what’s next. We all know vaccination is the only way out of lockdown, but chief health officers Kerry Chant and Brett Sutton shared interesting reflections in recent days on where they think things head next.
Experts and politicians have talked up the Delta variant as an Olympic long jumper or a “beast”. But few outright admitted it may be beyond the capacity of Australia’s world-class contact tracing and quarantine.
Professor Sutton put voice to those concerns this week.
“There is no absolute guarantee we can win against Delta variant,” he said.
“We have to recognise how profoundly challenging this variant is.”
It was a rare admission that, even with closed borders and lockdowns and masks, public health officials worry the latest virus variant may skirt the established safety measures we’ve relied on so far. We may be seeing that in Sydney, where daily cases stubbornly stayed above 100 for much of the week, despite strict lockdowns.
Professor Sutton seemed to hint snap lockdowns and harsh health measures would be a fact of Delta life until the vast majority of Australia is vaccinated.
“It does demonstrate with this variant, you can’t just rely on contact tracing. It’s got beyond them in Sydney,” Burnet Institute epidemiologist Professor Mike Toole told The New Daily.
“There’s a combination of the variant being more infectious but not closing down retail straight away. It makes the job of contact tracers almost impossible.”
Even NSW’s Gladys Berejiklian, who talks up her “gold standard” contact tracers, said Wednesday “we won’t live as freely as we would like until vaccination rates increase”.
Professor Toole said that in Melbourne, with a seven-day daily average of 14 new cases, the signs are good – but he was concerned some infections were seeding in areas not seen before on exposure-venue lists.
“You see the transmissions in Melbourne, at the MCG and AAMI stadium. That never used to happen before. You can be a few rows from someone and get infected,” he said.
“It really has changed … we don’t have any new tools, besides vaccination, but that won’t get us out of this outbreak right now.”
Does Delta need new thinking?
But Hassan Vally, associate professor in epidemiology at La Trobe University, said there was little other choice.
“There’s no doubt Delta raised the bar and made everything more difficult, but the same principles apply. If you don’t have contact with people, or limit contact, you limit opportunities for the virus,” he told TND.
“Masks still work, contact tracing still works. It’s become more difficult but I don’t see any other alternative.”
Professor Vally added he didn’t think Delta was the “gamechanger” it was made out to be, stressing even original COVID strains were deadly and infectious.
“Delta adds that extra level of difficulty, but this situation could have happened 12 months ago,” he said.
“I don’t think as much is different as people are saying.”
When TND asked federal health minister Greg Hunt about Professor Sutton’s comments on Tuesday, he did not dispute claims that Delta may not be beaten. Instead, he hinted Australia may need to adjust its thinking, once vaccinations increase – and the focus on raw case numbers may be phased out.
“As vaccinations expand… there is greater protection, and that will mean we will increasingly focus on hospitalisation and preventing loss of life,” Mr Hunt said.
“In parts of Europe, that there’s a much stronger focus not on case numbers but on loss of life.”
Dr Chant, in NSW, said Delta was spreading more through younger people than previous strains. She noted at press conferences that numerous under-40s are in hospital, saying it could trigger a “rethink” on vaccinating children.
Australia has approved Pfizer for those over 16, and AstraZeneca for those over 18. However, medical regulators are considering Pfizer’s application for children over 12.
“The Delta strain transmissibility will make us have to rethink about the level of vaccination … having vaccines available for children, particularly high school children, will be really useful,” Dr Chant said.
Professor Toole saw benefits in vaccinating children, potentially as young as six months.
“All the vaccine companies are looking at young children,” he said.
“I’d expect, but have no insider information, that those vaccines will be available soon to children. We desperately need that, otherwise we’ll never reach herd immunity.”
Professor Toole noted huge outcry over the United Kingdom opening up for ‘Freedom Day’ without offering children vaccines, which he said was “risking lives”.
Professor Vally expected children would be offered vaccines at some stage, but stressed “the priority” must be given to older people or those more vulnerable to COVID.
Even before jabs started going into arms, vaccine experts talked up the potential for COVID shots to need regular or annual ‘boosters’, like yearly influenza vaccines.
It is a hot point of contention. Pfizer wants approval for booster shots, while Australia has secured Moderna and Novavax vaccine contracts for a “booster strategy”.
But the World Health Organisation warned developing countries, which haven’t had any vaccines yet, should be prioritised over wealthy nations talking about third shots. Dr Michael Ryan, the WHO emergencies chief, said focusing on boosters for the rich before first shots for the poor would have the world “look back in anger and … shame.”
Dr Chant said Australians “need to get used to the fact” of boosters. In 2022, she said people would likely get “specific vaccines against new variants of concern”. Pfizer and AstraZeneca are developing second-generation vaccines against specific virus strains.
Professor Toole said boosters were still “a work in progress”, and said the WHO had a “strong point” on prioritising developing nations before even talking about boosters.
Professor Vally said, on the science, boosters may be needed – potentially annually – depending on new variants developing.
“For the next number of years, it makes sense to keep updating our immunity or boosting,” he said.