US virus expert criticises NZ's Covid-19 approach as unsustainable

A United States infectious diseases expert has slammed New Zealand's optimistic eradication approach, arguing it won't be sustainable in the long term. 

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Johns Hopkins University infectious diseases expert Amesh Adalja says the virus is likely to remain with us for decades to come. Source: Breakfast

Johns Hopkins University's Amesh Adalja told Breakfast he's never agreed with the approach adopted here and in Australia as he says the virus is likely to still be around in the next 10 to 20 years. 

"If you take the abstinence-only approach, which I think is how we describe the New Zealand approach, you stunt the ability of the population to risk calculate, and you get into this situation where just a couple of cases has everyone's lives disrupted. 

"You have to reflect what the reality of this virus is." 

 Adalja added he believes Covid-19 will still exist in a post-pandemic world and that countries will need to learn to live with the virus, expecting to record cases still. 

He says countries will need to develop a "baseline" for the number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths linked to Covid-19 that it deems acceptable moving forward. 

"Whenever New Zealand opens its doors to other parts of the world, they're going to have cases, and it's not something you can drive to zero. 

"At a time where you have rapid testing available, have vaccines available, this New Zealand approach is wrong."

Adalja told Breakfast Covid-19 has established itself as a new human virus and can't "magically go back into bats" post-pandemic. 

"This is not a virus that can magically go back into bats; there's no going back to a world without Covid-19," he said. 

"It is a new virus in humans, and I think that the Australia and New Zealand policy has never really reflected that." 

Covid-19 testing clinic in Auckland. Source: Getty

He said rapid testing options and vaccines had become vital tools in controlling Covid-19, something he believed New Zealand needs to consider ramping up. 

"New Zealand has had this attitude since the beginning of the pandemic with lockdowns, but they're not vaccinating at high rates; it makes you wonder what it was all for." 

Adalja stressed that New Zealand needs to ramp up its vaccination process if it aims to have most of the population protected before opening up borders. 

He also added that rapid testing should become a crucial part of the country's Covid-19 toolbox as it is in the UK and US, allowing people to continue with their day-to-day life by swabbing themselves at home. 

"There's an opportunity here to do this right. You've never really had a hard time with Covid-19.

"You've got a large buffer to be able to deploy rapid tests, to be able to deploy vaccinations and to not have this abstinence-only approach." 

He said the Government needs to teach New Zealanders how to "recalculate" and stop approaching Covid-19 with the mindset that it can be eliminated. 

Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa Immunologist Professor Graham Le Gros also told Breakfast that New Zealanders "can't be in a state of paralysis forever" by being kept in lockdown.

He said that the Government's lockdown approach had been a temporary measure while waiting to vaccinate the population's most vulnerable but that they should be looking at the next step. 

"Look, I think we've done a good job at stamping out and eliminating the virus. However, we've got to move on.

"We can't be in a state of paralysis forever." 

Le Gros added that the long Auckland stays still in Level 4, the more likely it is that other issues aren't addressed.

"There's other pressures growing in the community; social pressures, health pressures... there are other things people can die of." 

Currently in New Zealand, rapid antigen testing for Covid-19 isn't part of the country's public testing approach, as it's only recently been offered for essential workers who need to be tested frequently. 

Johns Hopkins University's infectious diseases expert Amesh Adalja Source: Breakfast

The Government has been hesitant to roll the rapid testing out further due to the tests not being as sensitive and therefore can be less accurate as the current testing available.

Meanwhile, vaccinations against Covid-19 have been opened up to all New Zealanders over the age of 12.