As Australia confronts the latest wave of COVID-19 infections – the sixth in just the last two years – Burnet Institute Director and CEO Professor Brendan Crabb AC is concerned a ‘living with COVID’ approach is creating major problems for the future.
Currently circulating at ‘moderate’ levels, COVID’s incidence is rising and modelling suggests the increase will continue into December with a chance the wave will peak around Christmas for the third year in a row.
While longer-term rates of COVID death and severe disease have declined due in significant part to widespread vaccination and hybrid immunity, provisional data shows there were around 3000 registered COVID deaths in Australia between January and July 2023.
Older people and those with weakened immune systems remain at greatest risk.
“We still have a strategy that is pro-infection despite years of experience to say it’s not working well enough, and that it’s dangerous,” Professor Crabb told The West Australian.
“If the aim is to protect the most vulnerable, we’re not doing a very good job of it with so many dying. From my perspective, the biggest problem we have is we’re just not being sufficiently straight with ourselves and with the community.
“I think if we did have a true understanding, we would go down a different path.
“We’re told it’s becoming seasonal when it’s not. ‘It’s no longer exceptional’ were the magic words used by the Chief Medical Officer to instigate this paradigm shift in October 2022.”
Professor Crabb argues it’s important to recalibrate away from non-exceptional to exceptional to encourage people to take up interventions and reduce the otherwise enormous impact this next wave is likely to have.
While COVID-19 has been a major factor in Australia’s first decrease in life expectancy since the 1990s, Professor Crabb is also concerned about the longer-term impacts of the virus.
“The best-case scenario is that we will continue to tolerate a death rate way above average, in the order of a thousand deaths a month and a large disease and economic/labour impacts underneath that,” Professor Crabb said.
“The worst-case scenario is that we’re setting ourselves up, nearly everybody, to suffer from chronic impacts of COVID down the track. We don’t know that yet. That’s an unknown, but it’s a realistic possibility.
“The children that we like to think are minimally affected may turn out to have a poorer life outcome than would otherwise have been the case because of repeat infections with COVID.
“That’s the risk we carry with the strategy we have.”
Professor Crabb said the same sense of urgency that facilitated the development of the first COVID vaccines should be applied to research into new treatments and vaccines, including nasal vaccines, and Australia’s acquisition of the new monovalent vaccine, which offers better protection against the prevailing sub-strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
He said it’s also important to consider there are simple and effective strategies to combat the virus that don’t necessitate harsh restrictions or lockdowns.
“We’ve moved on to passive controls, like airborne mitigation; the strategic use of high-quality masks when you can’t breathe clean air; the use of RAT tests to promote safe events; nimble vaccine strategies around the latest strain and widespread availability,” Professor Crabb said.
“The US and many other OECD countries are doing all of those things. Australia and the UK are not. We are majorly out of kilter with them.
“I’ve no problem with declaring the end of the emergency, it’s clearly not an emergency any more – but it is obviously still an exceptional disease, not a garden-variety cold, and needs an exceptional response.”
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