Melbourne COVID-19 cluster sparks new restrictions

Burnet Institute

25 May, 2021

Professor Brendan Crabb spoke with Patricia Karvelas on RN Drive about what the latest COVID-19 outbreak means for Victorians and the Indian B.1.617 variant driving community transmission.

Below is a transcript of the wide-ranging interview.

Professor Brendan Crabb AC

Evidence does suggest that the (Indian) B.1.617 variant is more transmissible than any of the other variants. I don’t think that makes it a superbug necessarily. It’s exactly what we expect with Darwinian evolution over time. If the virus is allowed to run rampant which is what’s happened around the world, it will just get fitter and fitter as we say. It will be more transmissible including in the face of of immunity eventually. We do have to plan at least for this being significantly more transmissible but it doesn’t change actually the action you take. It just means that we, from the government to individuals, need to be very vigilant at doing the things we’ve been asked to do. There is nothing more you can do or need to do. This will work still for the Indian variant but boy we can’t be complacent, we can’t think we solved it before in the Black Rock instance.

It’s going to happen here where every Victoria needs to mask up. We know masks work. We didn’t know that so well a year ago. We know that worked really well. Please, please do it.

Please get tested, please use your QR codes and obviously comply with the other restrictions that have come in and and limits. These things really do work. And they work with the Indian strain just as well as they’ve worked with others.

There are hints that its (Indian B.1.617 variant) three times more transmissible than the original Wuhan strain. The UK variant was close to twice as transmissible. So these viruses are getting worse, and they will continue to get worse.

Patricia Karvelas, Presenter RN Drive

So what would authorities consider to determine whether a lockdown is needed?

Professor Brendan Crabb AC

It’s a good question. But I think that the point of whether there was sufficient … there’s a line crossed with some uncertainty. And I don’t know exactly where that line would be. But, you know, I saw Brett’s Sutton’s (Victorian Chief Health Officer) comment that it’s not, quote unquote, “out of control yet”. I don’t think that means a numbers game. I think that means well you don’t know why certain cases are popping up in certain regions and so on. At the moment, that’s not happening. And I don’t know where that line is but I do know where there’s a degree of uncertainty, not the case numbers, but a degree of uncertainty, then that trigger might be pulled. Let’s hope it’s not necessary.

And the degree to which we all comply will help stave off the chances of that happening (a lockdown).

If our testing rate remains relatively low, then we might miss cases. If we can, you know, all go in for the slightest sniffle and get a test then we will pick up where this virus is much easier. So it depends a lot on all of that.

I’m sort of a little bit confident and concerned at the same time without being super stressed. I love that they’ve jumped on it. I love the urgency without panic. This is quite a step-up.

But you know, I know a little bit closer to it’s a very professional approach. Now things have improved enormously in a year. And I think Victorians can be confident that the team that’s looking after them and we as individuals now need to do our bit.

Patricia Karvelas, Presenter RN Drive

Is it time to review the 14 days quarantine, because a few people have texted in that it does appear to have a longer incubation. Is than an issue now.

Professor Brendan Crabb AC

No, I don’t think so. I think the 14 day quarantine served as well. There are other weaknesses in quarantine that you know, are irritating to say the least. Hotel quarantine has been good, but not great. And we know the difference between good and great. And that’s you know how seriously airborne transmission is taken.

We still don’t have strong national standards and national guidelines in informing mistakes as to what’s best practice. And so we’ve had 17 or 18 leaks in six months and nearly all of those have been or probably been because of airborne transmission of COVID. So that’s the thing I would like to see. We know how to deal with that.

Can’t guarantee you’d never have any leaks but you could certainly do a lot better than we are currently doing with Howard Springs type models eventually or even with audits of hotels. Some stricter international guidelines so we can do a lot of quarantine, I don’t think it’s a 14 day issue. That’s the main game.

Patricia Karvelas, Presenter RN Drive

But the other big change I’ve noticed is that we haven’t seen all of the states and territories locked down the borders in relation to Victoria. Why is that?

Professor Brendan Crabb AC

I think there’s greater confidence. It’s long been about confidence in each other’s capacity. And, you know, where lockdowns have happened. I remember hearing Victoria when the source of the Black Rock event happened, an outbreak happened in New South Wales. And I think Victoria was, seemed to me to be, a little bit unhappy with what New South Wales was doing and justified or not, not mandating masks and so on. And so, that led to border closures. I think we’ve moved a lot, right across the country, with the degree of confidence we have in each other. And that’s a big factor. But that’s observing that from the outside, it would be good to ask insiders that question. But I certainly sense that the bar has been raised by everybody, and it’s appreciated by everybody.

Patricia Karvelas, Presenter RN Drive

Will the AstraZeneca vaccine protect against this Indian B.1.617 strain.

Professor Brendan Crabb AC

The latest data out of the UK suggests that two doses of AstraZeneca (vaccine) does protect against India’s strain. And so that’s good news. One dose not so great, that does work but not work so well. So you really need people to get their two doses of course.

With a bit of luck, this is a warning shot and it won’t become a significant outbreak. But of course, there’s every chance this winter, we’re going to have significant outbreaks.

This enormous global epidemic going on at the moment and we’re not greatly different to other countries that have done really well - Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea - we shouldn’t consider ourselves any better than them and they’ve all got significant problems now. So we do need to prepare for a significant outbreak. Any of the variants seem to be reasonably controlled by two doses of AstraZeneca and also quite well controlled by Pfizer. I think by the looks of it, there is some immune escape, and as time goes on, the variants will get better at immune escape. For now, it’s pretty encouraging news.

So please do get vaccinated. Don’t delay, it takes three months between doses to get an optimal response. That may be reviewed at some stage I suspect to bring the gap closer, but you can’t afford to delay and you’ll be protected to a degree after one dose but really quite well after two even against the Indian variant.

Patricia Karvelas, Presenter RN Drive

And not to be self serving. But I know other people are in my cohort too. I’m under 50. So I’m not eligible for the AstraZeneca. But if I want to make that choice, and I do, to receive that vaccine, because I want to get vaccinated, do you think the government should alter the rules and let people under 50 turn up at their own discretion to get that vaccine?

Professor Brendan Crabb AC

I personally do. Yes. I think at their own discretion. And, on GP’s advice. I understand why the TGA has made the decision they’ve made and I’m supportive of it. But under the circumstances in which you just said it’s the vaccine we’ve got available and because of the really quite bold and good decision to have sovereignty. The government doesn’t get any free kicks, but their choice to make vaccine here was a pretty smart one, because it turned out to be very hard to get vaccines from overseas. And it’s a good vaccine. So clearly, there’s a rare complication that we’re getting on top of to a degree, to a large degree. So yeah, I would support that absolutely under the circumstances that you outlined

Contact Details

For more information in relation to this news article, please contact:

Professor Brendan Crabb AC

Director and CEO; Co-Head Malaria Research Laboratory; Chair, Victorian Chapter of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI)




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