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With the COVID-19 Delta variant now here to stay in Australia, we will have to continue following public health measures such as vaccinations and social distancing for some time, says Laureate Professor Peter Doherty.
“The virus is here, it’s opening us up and we need to get used to it,” Prof. Doherty told a CEDA livestream audience.
“We may have to get used to the idea that we’re kind of two countries for a while because, quite frankly, I don’t see premiers in states that don’t have any virus active opening up because we reached a magic… vaccination level.”
Under Australia’s national COVID-19 transition plan, Commonwealth, State and Territory governments agreed to ease restrictions when 70 per cent of the eligible population aged 16 years and over had received two vaccine doses.
However, some state premiers, such as Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan and Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, have cooled on the plan due to the ongoing Delta outbreaks in New South Wales and Victoria.
Prof. Doherty said Israel reopened at similar vaccination levels described in Australia’s national plan and had recently seen record-high daily infection rates due to the Delta variant.
“I don’t see why we should expect anything different,” he said.
“We’re going to have to use public health measures just as we have been using, and I think that’s inherent in all of the modelling documents.”
Prof. Doherty said vaccinations and other public health measures were Australia’s best path forward.
“What we know from the American experience is that the numbers of people who are vaccinated who are getting any infection… are about four times lower,” he said.
“The number of people who are being hospitalised are about 10 times lower and the number of people dying about 11 times lower, and many of those who are succumbing are people who have defective immune systems because they’re very elderly or other reasons.
“We have the vaccines, they’re coming through. Pity they didn’t come through earlier, but they’re coming through now and so it’s up to as many people as possible to get vaccinated.”
Prof. Doherty was joined by UNSW Kirby Institute Biosecurity Research Program Head, Professor Raina MacIntyre; GSK Australia Managing Director, Christi Kelsey; and CEDA Chief Executive, Melinda Cilento.
Prof. MacIntyre said Australia’s vaccine pipeline was dynamic and vaccine booster doses were on the horizon.
“We’ll have booster doses exactly matched to the Delta variant, which will then drive the efficacy right up and reduce the herd immunity threshold,” Prof. MacIntyre said.
“I believe we should aspire to the highest possible goal, and I still think herd immunity is possible.
“We may need to give boosters, we may need perfectly matched vaccines to the variants of concern, but that’s possible, particularly with the mRNA vaccines, which can be tweaked rapidly to variants of concern.”
While herd immunity might be possible, Prof. MacIntyre said eradicating COVID-19 altogether was highly unlikely because it lived within both animal and human hosts, and had asymptomatic transmission.
Prof. MacIntyre said we would have to rely on non-pharmaceutical measures in addition to vaccines, because the vaccine alone was not enough, given the contagiousness of the Delta variant.
“We need more than just vaccines in this interim period, so we need to use masks, we need to use social distancing, we need to use little measures to reduce contact between people, but we also need to think about clean indoor air,” Prof. MacIntyre said.
She said it was also important to find every case and isolate them and trace the contacts within 24 hours and quarantine them.
“The rapid contact tracing is probably not happening in most cases now in NSW because the required capacity is just too great,” Prof. MacIntyre said.
“There’s digital methods to do that and we really need to be looking at scaling up those digital methods. If we’ve got to overcome privacy barriers, well do it.
“We’ve got public health legislation that enables us to overcome individual rights in the interests of the public, we need to use everything at our disposal and I’m all for using public health legislation to get automated digital tracing methods.”
Ms Kelsey said it was clear the virus wasn’t going away any time soon.
“We need to think beyond the elimination and suppression strategies in this pandemic that we’ve become very familiar with and talk about what’s needed to get to the endemic phase,” Ms Kelsey said.
“What we’ve learned is that no one strategy alone is enough.”