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Epidemiologist: Eradication is possible


Story by Soumya Bhamidipati

As most of New Zealand enters alert level 3, an epidemiologist said New Zealand can expect to eradicate covid-19.

Masterton’s Professor Roger Morris has worked extensively on global disease control issues around the world.

“Absolutely,” Morris said, “There’s no doubt that we can eradicate.

“We’re doing very well. Unless there’s some real left-field curveball thrown at us, then I think we will eradicate and stay free until we make the decision that we don’t need to anymore.

“Once we’ve vaccinated as close to 100 per cent of the population as we can, then we are going to have to ease out of the controls and at that stage accept the possibility that the virus will get in. Now, how quickly we do that is going to be a government decision that won’t be made until probably early next year.”

Morris was involved in many large-scale disease problems in the past 50 years, in over 50 countries. There were two core principles to controlling a difficult disease, he said.

“Build a careful understanding of the particular disease and what features you need to take advantage of if you are to control it effectively. Then, take a methodical approach to implementing multiple control measures, which jointly attack the disease on its weak points.”

There had been over 150,000 scientific papers published on covid-19 since it was first detected in China at the end of 2019, Morris said, so there was no shortage of information.

“However, it requires breadth of knowledge about how to interpret the information, and previous experience with other diseases, to make sound judgments on what to do.”

Morris looked to the controlling of Ebola in West Africa as a particularly notable example. He had worked to prevent outbreaks in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

“They eradicated Ebola under much, much more difficult circumstances.”

Both countries had been through civil wars, had extremely mobile populations who were often unco-operative with authorities, and followed high-risk practices which facilitated disease spread. Yet, both countries succeeded in eradicating the disease, without using a vaccine, in two-and-a-half years.

This was through strong leadership, and intensive effort by those involved in controlling the disease, Morris said.

“Compared with Ebola in West Africa, even Delta strain of Covid-19 in New Zealand is a far more manageable problem.

“I’m watching the case counts very closely and it’s doing all the right things. If we were a Sydney outbreak, our numbers would be going up exponentially every day. We’d have 30 yesterday, 60 today, 120, then 200, and so on.

“What we’re seeing is a very flat trend that says the disease is under control. About half of the cases are within family clusters now, which says it’s been restricted to that group, a local cluster, a family cluster.

“It always takes time for the number to start going down because of the incubation period. People incubate for several days, then they get tested, and then they get the test results, so there’s always a lag period. The progress is looking excellent as far as I’m concerned given that Delta has a very high expected number of infections per case.”

Tuesday’s figures showed 49 new cases in Auckland, a decline since the day before. There had been no known cases in Wairarapa during the latest outbreak.

“Every epidemic disease control programme is imperfect in multiple ways, because new surprises are constantly arising, resources are being endlessly juggled, and priorities are shifting in response to the surprises the disease throws up.

“Yet, if there are multiple components which work together and core features of the integrated strategy are sound, as they are in New Zealand for Delta strain, we can expect to achieve eradication again,” Morris said.

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