Last updated February 24, 2020 at 4:38 pm
“We are very well placed to deal with any cases of the new coronavirus here in Australia, and our health system remains one of the best in the world.”
Why This Matters: Fast response and containment strategies will limit the virus impact.
Overnight, the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the novel coronavirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). What exactly does this mean, and what difference will it make to how countries are handling the crisis?
According to Sanjaya Senanayake from the Australian National University, in broad terms it means that the coronavirus is a health issue that has the ability to affect many nations by spreading across international borders.
“It gives the WHO more clout to coordinate a global response to the outbreak with member states, including with issues such as travel advisories,” Senanayake told the AusSMC.
“In general, the declaration of an emergency may make member states take an outbreak more seriously.”
The impacts for Australia
Other experts agreed, telling the Centre that the WHO’s declaration of a PHEIC represents the highest level of alert the organisation can issue.
“These declarations help raise the political profile of the outbreak, as a number of governments have pandemic preparedness plans that are linked to a PHEIC declaration,” says Adam Kamradt-Scott from the University of Sydney.
So what does this mean for Australia?
According to the experts, very little, as Australia has already enacted its national response systems to monitor and respond to cases that emerge here.
“The Australian Government has been closely monitoring international developments for the past couple of weeks, and progressively scaled up our national response as the situation has continued to evolve,” says Kamradt-Scott.
‘We are very well placed to deal with any cases of the new coronavirus here in Australia, and our health system remains one of the best in the world.”
The declaration comes as the Australian government has begun evacuating Aussies stuck in Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, and quarantining them on Christmas Island, an idea that was was welcomed by global biosecurity expert Raina MacIntyre from UNSW Medicine.
“If there is to be an epidemic in Australia, any delay is good. This buys time for development of drugs and vaccines,” she said. The alternative would be home quarantine, which according to MacIntyre is less reliable and harder to manage, with people scattered around the country.
“People would also have to be relied on for voluntary self-quarantine in this situation, and there is a risk some may break quarantine.”
The situtation continues to evolve rapidly
But not all experts agree.
Ian Mackay from the University of Queensland expressed concern that the Christmas Island facility may not be equipped to manage severe disease. It’s not clear that the facility is appropriately staffed with the required expert medical professionals, sufficiently prepared for the infection control challenges the virus presents, he says.
“[Quarantining people] may even increase the number of cases, depending on the state of the facilities available to them, and whether they are kept apart from each other.”
For now, the situation continues to evolve rapidly, but with many in the public already fearful, Mackay says it is paramount that people receive regular and clear information on government decisions that can dramatically affect human lives.
For more expert comments, head to the AusSMC’s coronavirus resource page.