Topics: Tasmanian outbreak; Testing; Coronavirus origins; WHO;
Minister, thank you for your time. I want to start by talking to you about this outbreak in Tasmania.
There are some conflicting stories coming out. First, the Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said there’d be an illegal dinner party attended by healthcare workers, then he retracted that.
Then the Prime Minister said on Tasmanian radio this morning that a healthcare worker had lied to tracing officials about their contacts and their movements, and that’s now been denied by Tasmania’s Director of Public Health who says there’s been no deliberate lies told.
What on earth is happening with these conflicting stories?
So, what we do know is that obviously there has been an outbreak and we have mobilised the army and the Australian Medical Assistance Team to set up down there.
I spoke with the Tasmanian Minister, Sarah Courtney, today.
That team has set up and the affected health workers and patients have been isolated.
The original source, I don’t have an answer for that. That’s for Tasmanian health officials to contact trace.
Understood. But we’ve got the Chief Medical Officer and the Prime Minister who have both been told these stories that are now being denied or questioned.
I mean, it sounds like rumour mongering and it’s going to the highest offices in our country, in terms of managing this outbreak.
I’ll respectfully leave the search on the ground to the Tasmanian authorities.
They’re well-placed, they’re doing a great job, they’ve created a national model of where there is an outbreak, a ring of isolation or a ring of containment.
And that’s what really matters, that’s about saving lives and protecting lives.
Are we going to get to the bottom of whether somebody did something wrong?
Well, the Tasmanian authorities are investigating both through the public health units and through the police.
In terms of finding the source of an outbreak, we don’t always find that.
In an epidemic, in a pandemic there is a search for many, many cases.
What does matter is that we now have what has been internationally recognised as the most accurate testing regime in the world.
Initially the testing criteria had to be fairly narrow because the tests were hard to come by, there was a shortage.
Now that there is less of a shortage, in an ideal world, would we simply test everybody and then nail exactly where it is?
I think we will be in a position to more than double our testing, and that will give us- you know, over the course of any week, we may well be far in excess of 100,000 a week.
And that’s working within the available resources and we are able to test more people because fewer are presenting.
So, all of those things are coming together.
Minister, the United States is investigating mounting theories – initially, they were thought to be rumours but they seem to be gaining momentum, that this virus might have escaped from a Wuhan virology research laboratory.
Your colleague, the Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, wants to get to the bottom of this. Do you share his interest in these theories?
I know this story has been previously raised and there was a lot of investigative work done by the virologists – or think of them as disease detectives – early on, and they didn’t find any evidence of that.
But I’m happy for others to look.
Our Australian epidemiologists, virologists, our disease specialists are focused on containing the disease here.
But I do know internationally that they have the resources through the universities and through some of the bodies in the United States to try to track back and trace the original source of the disease.
I think finding that original source is very important for the world to understand how this mutated, where it came from, to mitigate against future risks.
As to a particular source, we don’t have any evidence on that.
Maybe we will get evidence.
When you look at the timeline of how this pandemic developed, the first couple of weeks in January it seems pretty clear that China didn’t tell its people, didn’t tell the World Health Organization, and so therefore didn’t tell the world exactly what it knew when it knew it.
When will the world demand answers about that?
I think the world is saying very clearly we want to know what was known and when it was known.
We called this on 21 January, so there was evidence around, and we called it as a disease of pandemic potential, I think 10 days before the World Health Organization.
Geneva has some explaining to do as to why they didn’t act as quickly as we and others did, why they criticised Australia, for example, when we put in place a ban on people coming from China on 1 February.
That in years to come may well be the moment which is looked at as the single most critical step in the course of containing the virus in Australia.
The WHO certainly has some questions to answer, but what about China?
I mean, there were doctors in Wuhan who were raising the red flag about this virus at the end of December, and China didn’t say anything officially about human to human transmission until 20 January.
They were valuable weeks that were lost.
There will absolutely be international investigations as to the source, the conduct and the areas for improvement, where it’s in terms of transparency, tracing, tracking, all of the steps.
And so I think there’s a lot of work to be done on reviewing the original source, a lot of work to be done on reviewing how well things could have been done by the WHO and individual countries.
The rest of the world, I think, would overwhelmingly want to be where we are as a country.
Okay. Thanks very much for your time, Minister.