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Airlines and tourism confront new ‘superspread’ virus strain

January 8, 2021 Headline News No Comments Email Email

A new mutant strain of Covid-19, which has already turned up in Australia’s quarantine facilities, is so infectious airlines have started testing for it before boarding, amid fears that if it escapes into the community it will be very hard to stop.

Passengers will soon have to wear masks on all flights, with international travellers tested before boarding their international flights, and again after arrival in Australia. The details will be hammered out today.

Several cases of the recently identified British Covid-19 variant – known as B117 and up to 70% more infectious than previous strains – have been detected in quarantine facilities in Australia and New Zealand.

In an alarming development last night, a cleaner at a quarantine hotel in Brisbane who had tested positive for Covid-19 on Wednesday was confirmed to have the mutant B117 strain of the disease. Health authorities believe the woman was in the community while infectious for five days and worked a casual shift as a cleaner at the Hotel Grand Chancellor in Brisbane’s CBD last Saturday, 2 January.

Australia’s state and territory leaders will convene today in an urgent meeting to discuss strengthening international travel protocols against the mutant strain, which has reached several other countries as well as Australia.

Some airlines are testing for it before letting passengers board their flights. In New Zealand, from 15 January, anyone arriving from the UK and US will need to prove they’ve tested negative less than 72 hours before departing.

New Zealand’s Covid-19 Response Minister, Chris Hipkins, says work is already underway to extend the requirement to other long-haul flights to New Zealand.

“The new PCR test requirement, foreshadowed last week, will require travellers from the UK or the US to have a written form, certified by a laboratory or another form of approved evidence, showing a negative result in the 72 hours prior to departure,” Hipkins told RNZ. “It will come into force on flights arriving in New Zealand after 11.59pm on 15 January.”

The US has similar requirements for people flying in from the UK. They must test negative for Covid-19 no more than 72 hours before departure. South Australia is likely to impose the same requirement, but NSW is holding out.

“Certainly a number of the airlines are testing people,” NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said. “Again it’s really important to know that’s no one silver bullet. Just because you’re tested a couple of days before you get on the plane, you can develop the infection on the plane…  So no – we haven’t got any absolute guarantees.”

The new ‘superspread’ Covid strain has a higher reproduction rate – or R number – so spreads more rapidly. It is expected shortly to become the dominant strain in the UK, which is facing a public health crisis.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is among those who will demand stronger national protection measures against B117 at today’s national cabinet meeting.

“Now with these new strains that are much more infectious than that which we’ve been dealing with, with an R0 number of 4, so every person who gets it is giving it to four other people, if that gets in here and gets away from us, there will be no pulling that up,” Andrews said yesterday.

Sounding a similar warning, Tony Blakely, an epidemiology professor at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, told ABC Radio: “We know that the virus will occasionally sneak through quarantine, but this one is even more likely to sneak through because it’s that much more transmissible.”

It now seems, in the case of the Brisbane cleaner, that it may already have sneaked through.

AMONG OTHER DEVELOPMENTS:

  • Increasing numbers of arrivals in Australia are testing positive to Covid-19 while in hotel quarantine. Two of them in NSW, so far, have been detected carrying the fast-spreading new B117 strain.
  • An elderly patient at the centre of multiple PPE protocol breaches in Western Australia (medical workers did not wear full protective equipment) has tested positive for the new mutant B117 strain, authorities have confirmed.
  • Leading epidemiologists are calling for Australian border workers, and those in quarantine hotels, to be immediately and urgently vaccinated against Covid-19, as they are the most likely to be infected.
  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia now aimed to start vaccinating vulnerable groups mid-to-late February, initially at the rate of 80,000 people a week. That’s a month earlier than originally planned.
  • At least twice as many people are flying out of Australia as are flying in. Some of the departing passengers are Australians and will at some point want to return, putting more pressure on quarantine facilities.

Written by Peter Needham

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