Our Public Health Lead, Professor Tracy Smart, unpacks the current COVID situation for our ANU community.
It's official - in Canberra, we are 'COVID-normal'.
On Friday 19 February, we officially moved to a new stage of Canberra's Recovery Plan - 'COVID-normal'. This is terrific news, and a clear signal that, after a somewhat dynamic and confusing start to 2021, we are moving towards a new phase of the pandemic with hope for a brighter future.
This comes after several other good news stories in February, including:
- A sharp reduction in the global burden of recorded COVID-19 cases and deaths,
- More than 188 million vaccinations have been given to people across the world, without serious side effects,
- Arrival of the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine on our shores, and the approval of the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine by our Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA),
- The commencement of Stage 1A of Australia's national vaccination program on 22 February, with a stated intention to vaccinate everyone over the age of 18 by the end of October, and
- The announcement that the US government is pledging USD $4billion towards supporting vaccination accessibility in developing countries.
Given this great news, it's hard not to think that the end of the pandemic is near, but many challenges still lie ahead. So, let's look at three main areas that will occupy our thoughts in 2021.
Local transmission in Australia
As the first few weeks of 2021 have shown us, Australia is not COVID-free despite our excellent 'top 10' COVID-19 performance. We will still see small outbreaks and clusters popping up from time to time because we keep importing the disease. The hotel-based quarantine system generally keeps us safe but is not infallible. Not only is it a human system run by humans for humans and therefore bound to fail at times, but evidence has shown that COVID-19 can spread via aerosol much more effectively than first suspected. It only takes one hotel worker to inhale the wrong particles of air for the virus to escape into the general community.
When this occurs, as we have seen, contact tracing experts in each jurisdiction quickly move into action, and governments act swiftly and decisively to ensure the outbreak is brought under control as soon as possible. Each state and territory may have a slightly different approach to this, but all have proven effective so far. While we haven't had to exercise this capability in the ACT yet, our local health department has responded quickly and thoroughly to events happening elsewhere, and I have every confidence that things will go well if we were tested.
However, it's worth remembering that a circuit breaker lockdown can happen here, so we need to continue to be COVID-safe and stay up to date with what's happening.
We are indeed living in exceptional times when we consider the unprecedented success story of COVID-19 vaccines. To go from the discovery of a new virus to having a vaccine approved for use in a year is one of the greatest success stories in the history of medical science. At the time of writing, there are eight vaccines that are either already being given or are going through approval processes - four from the US, two from China, and one each from UK and Russia - and many more are in the pipeline. And although these vaccines have slightly different levels of efficacy, all appear to be very safe.
The two approved for use in Australia so far are the Pfizer and Oxford Astrazeneca vaccines. The Pfizer must be imported, so we are in competition with the rest of the world to secure supplies. The Oxford vaccine is already being manufactured in Australia, which will ensure we have enough for everyone in our country, and to support some of our regional partners. This is the vaccine most of us will get.
Both vaccines have already been extensively used overseas, have proven safe, and are very effective (~100%) in preventing severe COVID-19 disease and death. The Pfizer vaccine is more effective in preventing mild to moderate COVID-19 disease - 95% vs 80% for the Oxford vaccine (if given with a 12-week gap between doses as it will be in Australia). In other words, once you have had the Oxford vaccine you are slightly more likely to get some COVID-19 symptoms than if you had the Pfizer vaccine, but in both cases there is almost zero risk that you will develop severe disease or die.
Having the ability to vaccinate all Australian adults by the end of the year is a fantastic achievement and will help us to tame COVID-19 on our shores. But it's not the end of the battle. Many people are hesitant about getting the vaccine for a variety of different reasons, and we must help them overcome these concerns. Also, the logistical problems of manufacturing, distributing, and administering a vaccine to the majority of the 7.8 billion people in the world remain, and as they say, "no one is safe until everyone is safe". This is where Australia and other western nations must step up to ensure we take a global approach to managing the pandemic. Otherwise, we will be dealing with this for many years to come.
We have all read about the new COVID-19 variants that have emerged over recent months, the so-called UK, South African and Brazilian strains. All three strains seem to have won out over all other strains of COVID-19 in those countries and are more transmissible. There are also concerns that the Oxford Astrazeneca vaccine may not be as effective against the South African variant, and that the Brazilian variant may be causing re-infections in those who have previously had the disease.
There is still much more to understand about these variants and work is already occurring to modify the vaccines to deal with them. However, variants will continue to emerge as more people throughout the world become infected, which is another reason why a global vaccination program is essential and urgent.
Being COVID-safe and smart
The most important thing to remember this year is that while we continue to be under pandemic conditions, we need to continue to consider COVID-19 as a risk, even after we have been vaccinated. I like to think of this as being 'COVID smart', which means we all have an active role in thinking about the risk of COVID in everything we do.
If we get vaccinated and continue to behave in a COVID-safe way, we will be able to live comfortably in our 'COVID normal' world for as long as we need to .
We can continue to be COVID-safe by:
- Maintaining good hygiene - wash or sanitise your hands frequently, sneeze and coughing into your elbow, and clean up your immediate area after use.
- Keeping our distance - maintain a 1.5m distance from others where possible. Avoid crowded spaces or wear a mask or face covering if you are unable to do so.
- Staying home and getting tested if you develop any COVID-19 like symptoms.
- Checking in for contact tracing - download the Check in CBR app and check in whenever you see the QR codes.
- Keeping up to date - stay alert but not alarmed by keeping up to date with local Government health advice and the Campus Alert System risk level.
I urge you all to get the vaccine when it's available to you, and to be COVID-safe and smart in 2021.