IT would take at least 28 days of no COVID-19 cases - while searching "avidly" for the virus - before we could consider it "eliminated" from the country, Dr David Durrheim says.
The public health physician for Hunter New England said we were not yet at the point in Australia where we could talk about eradicating the virus. But closed borders, stringent social distancing measures, and rigorous testing would limit circulation.
"The virus's incubation period can be anything up to 14 days, so ideally you'd want two incubation periods with no virus," Dr Durrheim said.
"That is the magical period - 28 days without any virus, and if we were still searching avidly, that would be extremely reassuring that we have got to that point where circulation is really, really limited.
"If we can do that throughout the country we can probably get to the stage where we can relax some of these measures further, but we're not yet at that stage."
There are now 53 active cases of COVID-19 in the Hunter, as confirmed cases remained stable at 277 in the 24 hours to 8pm on Wednesday. Nationally, there were 10 new cases, and in NSW, there were two. About 23,000 tests on Hunter New England residents had returned negative results.
"But that's actually only around 1.3 per cent of our population," Dr Durrheim said this week. "The broader we can get the testing done, particularly for people with a fever or acute onset of cough, sore throat, and shortness of breath, the better. Any cases that are missed provides the virus with another opportunity of seeding itself in our community."
Dr Durrheim said a look at the measures of immunity to the disease around the world were not "reassuring".
A study in Geneva found about 5.5 per cent of people showed evidence of infection, while in the US, 20 per cent of people had an antibody response to the virus.
"It is very disturbing.... That is nowhere near herd immunity," he said. "For a virus like this one, you would need somewhere between 60 and 70 per cent minimum of the population needing to be immune. There is not enough immunity around, and this is why the need for an effective, safe vaccine is something we're all going to be rooting for. We haven't yet had a successful coronavirus vaccine, so that is of concern."
But Dr Durrheim was optimistic an effective vaccine would be developed, given there were about 70 innovative trials running in parallel.
"It's wonderful to see that all public health measures have had such a marked impact on slowing the virus," he said. "They speak about the hammer and the dance - the hammer has worked, now how do we effectively relax just enough but still remain ahead of the virus and not allow it to escape us again? It is going to be an interesting number of months ahead as we fight this battle against the COVID-19 virus."
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