Originally written by Charlie Moore and Stephen Johnson for Daily Mail Australia at 10:56 AM UTC on 27 February 2020
Coronavirus may hit Australia harder than China because of the country’s ageing population, a leading bio-security expert has warned.
The flu-like virus, which spawned in Wuhan, China in December, is more severe in older people because their immune systems are weaker.
In Australia 16 per cent of the population are over 65, compared to just nine per cent in China, where some 2,700 have died.
On Thursday Prime Minister Scott Morrison extended Australia’s travel ban on China for another week.
In a press conference, he said the coronavirus outbreak would soon enter a pandemic phase and the Australian government would initiate its emergency response plan.
He said: ‘We believe that the risk of a pandemic is very much upon us.’
Professor Raina MacIntyre, the head of Biosecurity at the University of New South Wales’s Kirby Institute, warned Australia could be hit harder than China.
‘The disease is clearly more severe the older you get,’ she told Daily Mail Australia on Thursday.
‘So we would see proportionately more severe disease because we have more older people than China does.’
Experts have raised fears that nursing homes will struggle to cope with a pandemic.
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly told the Daily Telegraph that in a worst case scenario family visits would be banned, patients would be isolated and ‘end of life planning’ would be encouraged.
Last week the government lifted the ban on Year 11 and 12 students coming in from China under strict rules, and at the time said it would consider a controlled opening for Chinese university students a week later.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the government was constantly reviewing its position.
‘We have been meeting multiple occasions every week so at the highest levels of the government we are constantly reviewing our response to coronavirus,’ she told ABC Radio on Thursday.
‘Australia has prepared ourselves well but this is obviously a significant growing issue.’
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton agreed the burgeoning spread of COVID-19, particularly in Italy, was concerning.
‘We are now talking about 42 countries outside of China,’ he told Sydney radio 2GB on Thursday.
‘People should be reassured in Australia though, we have been able to contain in the way that we have.’
The disease has a low death rate of around 2 per cent, only slightly higher than flu, and the spread rate is already declining in China – but governments around the world were preparing for the worst.
On Wednesday experts said that Australian schools would be closed and mass public gatherings would be banned if the coronavirus escalated into a pandemic.
Instead of going to the workplace, Australians would be made to work from home.
Hospitals would also struggle to cope with an influx of patients – with modelling predicting a massive shortfall of ‘coronavirus beds’.
In a worst-case scenario, Professor MacIntyre said that mass gatherings like sporting events and concerts would be banned and children would stay home from school.
Health experts were bracing for a scenario where up to 50 per cent of Australians get infected with the disease.
Measures to deal with a coronavirus pandemic
Source: Federal Department of Heath’s Australian Health Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza, May 2019
‘Closure of schools will be standard measures but may be implemented differently in different states,’ she told Daily Mail Australia on Wednesday.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has flagged the possible cancellation of sporting events like AFL and rugby league games.
‘The possibility is always there, but that is a last resort,’ he told reporters.
Offices would also be empty, with the federal government’s pandemic plan recommending workplace closures.
‘Businesses should start planning working from home arrangements,’ Professor MacIntyre said.
The infectious diseases researcher also feared hospitals would be overwhelmed, forcing the postponement of elective surgery and an expansion of intensive care units.
She has released modelling showing tens of thousands of intensive care beds would be needed to cope, going by the Chinese infection rate.
Should 50 per cent of Australians be infected with coronavirus, in an extreme case scenario, 650,000 intensive care beds would be needed as 1.8million people required hospitalisation in one year.
‘The health system would need surge capacity, and fallback plans if needs cannot be met with existing beds and resources,’ Professor MacIntyre said.
‘If hospital beds run short, asking people with mild infection to stay home would be reasonable.
‘We would likely see elective surgery delayed or rescheduled and reprioritisation of acute care.’
Coronavirus in China has a fatality rate of 2.3 per cent.
Health authorities in every Australian state are on high alert after the American Centres for Disease Control and Prevention warned coronavirus was worse than first feared.
‘Current global circumstances suggest it’s likely this virus will cause a pandemic,’ the government agency’s principal deputy director Dr Anne Schuchat told reporters on Tuesday night.
Should a pandemic occur, Australia’s federal Department of Health warned hospitals were likely to be overrun.
‘Demand on primary health care will also increase, exacerbated by the need to attend to patients affected by the changes in availability of services at hospitals,’ it said last year in its Management Plan for Pandemic Influenza.
A coronavirus pandemic would also require measures to prevent diseases outbreaks in aged care homes and prisons.
The COVID-19 coronavirus has infected 80,000 people worldwide since it originated in December at an animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
That included 23 people in Australia as of Wednesday.
A further seven Australians had been flown from the Diamond Princess cruise ship at Yokohama in Japan to a quarantine centre near Darwin, where they tested positive.
Coronavirus has killed more than 2,600 people globally and can cause severe lung damage and trigger multiple organ failure, particularly among the elderly or frail.
Australia is still in the containment stage of coronavirus.
Most contagion cases have occurred in China, with people also testing positive in South Korea, Japan and Italy.
Professor Sharon Lewin, the director of the University of Melbourne’s Doherty Institute, said a pandemic occurred when ‘there’s sustained human-to-human transmission in multiple countries’.
The Australian government extended the ban on those coming from mainland China until February 29.
The travel ban has meant that an estimated 65,000 Chinese students are unable to get to university.
The University of Melbourne said on Wednesday it would give students who have been affected by the virus and its ‘associated travel restrictions’ support packages of up to $7,500.
Eligible expenses include accommodation costs, fees from flight changes, costs associated with the 14-day quarantine period, and other financial losses.
University Provost Professor Mark Considine said it has been a ‘difficult time’ for affected students and the financial support would help ensure they can complete their studies on time.
On Wednesday a survival expert warned Australians should to start stocking up on food and supplies in the event of a pandemic.
One of Australia’s leading survivalists said the nation’s shoppers should start bulking up their weekly shop before the virus’ spread leads to food supply shortages.
‘We should always be prepared for food shortages – not just from coronavirus but civil incidences, extreme weather and power outages which will cut us off from supply,’ Western Australian survival instructor Bob Cooper told Daily Mail Australia on Wednesday.
Stockpiling by panicked shoppers has already seen shelves emptied in Italian towns at the centre of the country’s outbreak in the northern Veneto and Lombardy regions.
Mr Cooper said it was too early for such panic here but said Australians should start thinking about whether their food cupboards can sustain them if the supply chain is broken.