Some COVID-19 media reports ‘over sensational’


The latest on COVID-19 includes an unstaffed pharmacy in Wuhan, a $2 million grant for Australian vaccine research, and new statistics on the condition’s mortality rate

In new research published in JAMA, Chinese scientists have provided a summary of 72,314 suspected COVID-19 cases – the largest case series to date of coronavirus 2019 in mainland China.

Among these case records, 44,672 were confirmed cases (62%; diagnosis based on positive viral nucleic acid test result on throat swab samples) while others were diagnoses made on symptoms, exposures and/or presence of lung imaging features consistent with coronavirus pneumonia) and 889 case which were classified as asymptomatic.

The case fatality rate was reported as 2.3% – 1023 of 44,672 confirmed cases, rising to 14.8% in patients aged 80 or over (208 of 1408) and 8% in those aged 70 to 79 (312 of 3918) and 49% in critical cases (1023 of 2087).

“COVID-19 rapidly spread from a single city to the entire country in just 30 days,” the authors wrote.

“The sheer speed of both the geographical expansion and the sudden increase in numbers of cases surprised and quickly overwhelmed health and public health services in China, particularly in Wuhan City and Hubei Province.

“Epidemic curves reflect what may be a mixed outbreak pattern, with early cases suggestive of a continuous common source, potentially zoonotic spillover at Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, and later cases suggestive of a propagated source as the virus began to be transmitted from person to person.”

The authors also noted five deaths among health care personnel infected with the disease, with 1716 such workers affected.

Professor Raina MacIntyre, Head of the Biosecurity Program at the Kirby Institute at the University of NSW, said that to put COVID-19 in context, the case fatality rate of the 1918 flu pandemic was 5%, and the 2009 pandemic, 0.01%.

“Sustained transmission in Australia may result in anywhere from 25-70% of the population getting infected. So, a case fatality rate of 2-3% is high,” the expert in influenza and emerging infectious diseases said.

“If 50% of Australians became infected that is 400,000 people dying, almost 2 million people needing a hospital bed and 650,000 people needing an ICU bed.”

She said that the world was “close” to a pandemic, but that there was still hope that epidemics in Iran, Italy and South Korea can be controlled.

“Australia has done an excellent job of preventing sustained transmission in the country,” she said.

Meanwhile Professor Nigel McMillan, the director in Infectious Diseases and Immunology at Menzies Health Institute Queensland, Griffith University, warned that the mainstream media might not be helping.

“There are a number of media reports that are over sensational and this will become more problematic if a pandemic occurs (and the chances are now high that it will),” he said.

“We don’t wish to induce panic food or petrol stockpiling, etc when for 95% of the population, this will be a mild cold. 

“A pandemic is more likely than not now we have spread in several countries.

“Travel bans will no longer be useful or make sense and so health authorities need to prepare for the next phase. This includes preparing our hospitals for a large influx of patients, stockpiling any antivirals (some appear to work to slow the virus), and advising the public that when the time comes they will need to think about things like stay at home if ill, social distancing, avoid large gatherings etc.”

In Wuhan itself, the Xinhua News Agency reports that a pharmacy is being set up in Wuhan City, to automatically dispense traditional Chinese medicine to treat the novel coronavirus.

The pharmacy, which is being set up at Leishenshan Hospital by Suzhou XinHeng Automation Technology, is a smaller version of an existing automatic TCM pharmacy developed by the company.

Company chairman Lu Haiying said it can dispense 48 types of herbal medicines to treat the virus and is intended to help reduce the pressure on pharmacists in hospitals, where there is a shortage.

Up to 1,100 patients per day are expected to be able to access the machine, equivalent to the work of 60 pharmacists working for 24 hours.

Meanwhile Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has announced that applications have opened for the Australian Government’s $2 million grant opportunity to support research into development of a vaccine to protect against the coronavirus.

“The objective of this open and competitive grant opportunity is to accelerate research into development of a safe, effective vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19,” Mr Hunt said.

“Given the rapidly evolving nature of the COVID-19 outbreak, applicants must propose research that will support the rapid development of a vaccine, including demonstration of partnerships that will provide access to critical resources necessary to complete the project.

“The grant opportunity is funded from the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), the Morrison Government’s $20 billion investment to support vital health and medical research that we can use to react swiftly to emerging health issues.

“Australia has produced some of the world’s best medical research. This is another example of us contributing to address important health challenges for Australians and for the global population.

“Research plays a critical role in ensuring Australia maintains its world-class health system and is particularly important as the world responds to COVID-19.”

He told reporters that the number of confirmed cases is now at 78,973 as at 24 February, and that to date 2,466 lives had been lost globally to the coronavirus.

“Within Australia, within the general community, it remains as it has for some time now, that there have been 15 cases, 10 of which have cleared the virus and the other five remain stable.”

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