Infectious disease expert says NZ should be preparing for a coronavirus pandemic

Although there are no cases of coronavirus disease in New Zealand, a Christchurch infectious diseases specialist says the country should be preparing for a pandemic.

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Dr David Clark says the Government’s measures have seen no case of infections in New Zealand. Source: 1 NEWS

In an editorial in today’s issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal, Professor David Murdoch of the University of Otago says the country’s health and research sector needs to prepare for spread of the outbreak here as this outcome is likely.

“The likelihood of maintaining this [coronavirus-free] status is low and now is the time to be preparing for an anticipated upsurge in respiratory disease in the community and increased pneumonia hospitalisations," he says.

The viral outbreak that began in China has infected more than 75,000 people globally. In mainland China there have been 2004 deaths among 74,185 cases, mostly in the central province of Hubei.

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Epidemiologist Michael Baker told TVNZ 1’s Breakfast, scientists around the globe believe this outbreak could quickly spread to a pandemic. Source: Breakfast

Professor Murdoch is Dean of the University of Otago, Christchurch and an international expert in infectious diseases.

Professor Murdoch says the New Zealand’s Government and its health and research resources should now be working together in preparation for an anticipated outbreak.

He says despite considerable efforts being made by the country’s health system to prepare as best it can, experts will only know how successful they have been in the aftermath of a Covid-19 pandemic, if it arrives.

The New Zealand Influenza Pandemic Action Plan has been in existence since 2002 with several subsequent revisions and it provides a framework for pandemic responsiveness. While focused on influenza, it contains many principles that should apply to the current Covid-19 epidemic, Mr Murdoch says.

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One person showed mild symptoms and the other was staying in the same caravan as them. Source: 1 NEWS

“There is also a chance that transmission of Covid-19 may coincide with our next seasonal epidemic of influenza, creating additional pressure on the health system.”

New Zealand has an added pressure as a gateway to many small South Pacific nations with less ability to deal with a pandemic, he says.

“Understanding the complex systems that drive the spread of such disease is essential for informing strategies to tackle emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. This usually requires responses from multiple disciplines and an awareness of what is happening globally. Consequently, professionals and researchers from a wide range of disciplines must work together and with communities to prevent and control infectious disease impacts through actions at all levels,” Mr Murdoch says.

While the precise origin of the virus is yet to be determined, epidemiological evidence indicates that several zoonotic transmission events occurred in December 2019 at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market with the virus most closely related to a coronavirus from a horseshoe bat.