This is a two part update from Australia by our correspondent Phil Shannon.
In a near-daily tweet storm, the Australian Health Minister, Greg Hunt, is often jubilant: “An 86th day of zero cases of community transmission nationwide”, he boasts one day, followed by “Zero cases of community transmission nationwide today making it 63% of days this year with no cases” (tweaking the wording to account for a micro-cluster of community-transmitted ‘cases’). Relishing a comparison with what he claims are the hundreds of thousands of new cases, and tens of thousands of Covid deaths, in the rest of the world every day where viral carnage still apparently reigns, the ebullient Minister extolls his government’s sterling performance in building a Covid-free utopia in the southern hemisphere.
Now, just hang on a cotton-pickin’ minute, Minister. There is a lot to unpack in all this and once the pretty paper is removed, the ‘Zero Covid’ present is likely to be revealed as a hugely disappointing gift from hell. A case study of the Zero Covid policy of the Australian government (and its Kiwi neighbour) will show the damaging fantasy that is Zero Covid, for any country foolish enough to attempt it.
Does Australia have a formal ‘Zero Covid’ policy?
Zero Covid (if not that exact phrase) is formal Australian government policy. The goal was adopted in July 2020 by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (the terrifying national collective of Covid-obsessed state and Commonwealth Chief Health/Medical Officers) which is the key decision-making body for health emergencies (even though the Covid ‘emergency’ is such only in their own fevered minds). The committee declared that “the goal for Australia is to have no community transmission of COVID-19”, an aspiration that was immediately endorsed by the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, and formalised by National Cabinet (Australia’s ‘government of national, jurisdictional unity’ for managing the virus, which consists of the Prime Minister and all eight state and territory Premiers – how they love their self-importance during their Covid ‘crisis’) declaring that “the goal remains no local community transmission”.
Nothing has changed since then – Sky News Australia reports that, in May 2021, Morrison re-emphasised that “he had no plans to abandon a ‘zero cases’ target”. It doesn’t get more ‘Zero Covid’ than that. Across the ditch, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has also had her ‘Zero Covid’ epiphany and ‘Zero Covid’ is New Zealand government policy
Has the virus gone from Australia?
So, how’s it going, then, in the global test case for Zero Covid down south? Has the virus gone from within Australia’s barricaded shores? At first glance, it has. There are seemingly no home-grown viral infections being picked up by testing. The only people testing positive in Australia (some 300 a month) are to be found amongst the trickle of overseas arrivals cooped up in mandatory medi-hotel quarantine as part of Australia’s closed borders policy. Occasionally, through a breach of quarantine protocols, an imported virus will hitch a ride into the community with a hotel quarantine worker or, more rarely, a released internee, where, the theory goes (despite not being borne out in practice), the virus’ further community spread is stymied by the brutal, carpet-bombing efficiency of lockdown, the protective shield of the mask, and the surgical strike precision of contact-tracers tracking an escaped virus’ every move and stopping it dead with enforced self-isolation of those testing positive and their close contacts.
Appearances can be deceiving, however. The domestic elimination of the virus per se can not be assumed merely because of the absence of any community-origin ‘cases’ being detected through testing. Perfectly healthy people can be ‘infected’ with the virus (indeed, the main symptom of infection by this particular virus, for averagely healthy people, is ‘feeling absolutely fine’) and they will thus have no reason to go anywhere near a testing station. Those who are symptomatic – and, statistically, nearly all those who do develop symptoms experience mild effects akin to a head-cold or something equally innocuous – would also have little health motive to undertake testing and potentially face two weeks of house imprisonment if they come up positive.
The virus, therefore, is probably still circulating domestically but doing little or no harm to, or even being noticed by, those it lodges with. This is to be expected because this virus, like all viruses, is obeying ‘natural selection’ pressures to evolve to variants that are more transmissible but less virulent. New viruses on the block tend, at first, to kill their more vulnerable hosts but, as a result, they also go down in flames themselves transmission-wise. The deadlier original virus has as much prospect of passing on its genes as does a kamikaze pilot, whilst the more benign versions get to pass around the population more readily by virtue of not killing their hosts or forcing them into their sick-bed.
As it is, the only people getting sticks shoved up their nostrils, apart from those required to do so for employment or other unavoidable reasons, are the Covid Hysterics who treat every cold-like symptom as possible Covid (hint – if you are capable of driving through busy city traffic to queue for three hours at a testing centre rather than being bed-bound with fever and nausea, you probably aren’t at death’s door from what has been hyped to billy-o as the world’s most fearsome virus ever). These people are joined by other Covid neurotics who, even though they are in tip-top health, like to get tested ‘just to be on the safe side’ (testing centres report a steady stream of ‘regulars’). These people will overwhelmingly be Covid-free as will the healthy but hyper-obedient who dutifully obey public exhortations or contact-tracers’ orders to get themselves tested if they happened to be in a declared ‘hotspot’ frequented by a positive-testing ‘case’ which has slipped through medi-hotel quarantine. The ever-shrinking number of those who do have a symptomatic dose of Covid beyond the bland are also likely to stay home and simply get over it, sans any testing.
So, this coronavirus may well be quietly percolating, undetected, even during the virus’ summer off-season, just as the flu virus never goes completely away even during a baking Australian summer. In the summer of 2019, for example, there were record flu infection numbers in Australia, with over 40,000 lab-confirmed cases recorded (genuine ‘cases’, for a change), with, presumably, many times more that weren’t officially logged because people just got through it. Some of this summer flu activity would no doubt be fed by the arrival of infected overseas travellers but the salient point about off-season viral activity is that is shows that winter-loving viruses can still operate, albeit at a much subdued level, during a hostile summer. Virus-carrying aerosols (from coughing, sneezing, talking, etc.) remain suspended for longer in the colder and drier air of winter resulting in increased transmission but even in the warmer and more moist air of summer, a respiratory virus can still tick over, especially where life, for many, is lived largely indoors between home, car and office, well away from a scorching sun, as well as in niche, micro-climates conducive to virus activity where the immuno-compromised and institutionalised live in seclusion from the virus-busting, UV-rich and Vitamin-D-bestowing sun.
Even if borders were closed, as they have been in Australia for over a year now, when winter rolls around, the small domestic human reservoir of active SARS-CoV-2 virus could turn into the usual winter flood, especially if a new strain of the virus has achieved sufficient (generally 30%-40%) mutational genetic difference from its ancestor thus negating prior immunity. Further, if SARS-CoV-2 is of zoonotic origin (and “three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals”, according to the US CDC), or if it is of bio-lab origin and is capable of infecting non-humans as well as humans, then the animal hosts of the virus will keep the virus presence simmering ready for its winter party time. Closed-borders Australia and New Zealand are just entering winter so we will find out soon enough if this hypothesis of domestic virus take-off, despite closed borders, holds up.
Did border closures save Australia from the worst of the pandemic?
So, although it is unlikely that there is any domestic, zero virus baseline that could be maintained at zero by impermeable borders, could border closures nevertheless have helped to lessen the impact of the virus in Australia, giving Zero Covid a feasible policy foothold? Did shutting Australia’s airports and seaports on 20 March, 2020, help to keep viral spread contained so that, now, as of March 2021, with barely 900 or so Covid deaths in total (even including faux deaths with but not from Covid), Australia’s Covid outcome ranks as the ninth best in the world (with border-closing New Zealand coming in second best in the world)? Perhaps these two island nations’ ability to internationally isolate with geographic ease accounts for the two countries’ statistically relatively benign Covid experience by shutting off ongoing overseas virus supply?
Closed borders, however, are unlikely to have had much, if any, impact on the Australian and New Zealand Covid stats for the simple reason that the border closures, as for every other country of similar isolationist inclination, were entirely futile at the time (other than as political theatre, of course) because it is likely that the virus had already been circulating globally since as early as September/October 2019, and certainly by November/December 2019, well before the March 2020 Great Panic set in.
A number of documented, early bio-sightings of the virus have been made, dating back for up to six months before the virus came to public notice:
- In China, a month before that country reported the world’s first official case of Covid on December 8th, 2019, three researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology are believed (by US ‘intelligence sources’) to have been hospitalised in November for possible Covid.
- In Italy, the National Cancer Institute has found virus antibodies dating back to September 2019 in the blood samples of volunteers enrolled in a lung cancer screening trial; whilst Rome’s Department of Environment and Health found virus genetic material in waste-water samples in Milan and Turin from mid-December 2019.
- In France, doctors at a Paris hospital have found that a patient they’d treated for pneumonia in December 2019 had been ill with Covid; whilst virus antibodies were detected in blood samples taken in hospitals in the twelve mainland regions of France dating back to early November 2019;
- In the US, a CDC-led study has found virus antibodies in archived American Red Cross blood donation samples in nine American states collected in early December 2019; a new analysis by researchers (including those at the US National Institutes of Health) of blood samples collected in the first three months of 2020 has found virus antibodies in people in four states from December 2019; whilst ‘influenza-like illness’, which is tracked by the CDC, saw unusually large spikes (not caused by influenza) in December 2019 and January 2020.
In a world globally connected by mass passenger air travel, the spread of the virus would have been readily facilitated from possibly as early as September 2019. In the US, air traffic (pre-Covid) from China alone was around 14,000 people per day on average, whilst Australia saw 5,800 Chinese arrivals per day and New Zealand around 1,100. Any Chinese travellers who were pre-symptomatic or feeling-a-bit-woozy with the virus would have been amongst their number in some cumulative force, seeding the virus globally many months before anyone knew the virus even existed or went looking for it. The virus was likely to have been endemic globally well before closing the borders could have kept it out of Australia, or any other country.
Early global virus spread, however, did not turn out to be the end of the world. With the virus kicking up its heels globally months before is official debut, there were no out-of-the-ordinary death spikes, and hospitals were not overrun. SARS-CoV-2 wasn’t the Killer from the East stalking the land – it was just another anonymous, average seasonal respiratory virus of slightly worse virulence for the most vulnerable but mostly harmless for everyone else. The virus only subsequently got an unwarranted reputational boost thanks to alarmist epidemiological models and the statistical hyper-inflation of the Covid threat because of a PCR test manifestly unsuited to diagnosing genuine, symptomatic, infectious clinical cases (as even its inventor has been at pains to confirm) and a death classification protocol that assigned to Covid every death where a positive test was even remotely proximate but which had nothing to actually do with the death (like gunshot wound, for example) – in April 2020, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House infectious disease advisor and virus response coordinator, following highly unorthodox and deceptive WHO instructions on coding deaths for Covid, spilled the beans by saying “we’ve taken a very liberal approach to mortality…. if someone dies with COVID-19 we are counting that as a COVID-19 death”.
Before the virus had received any press attention, Australians and their Kiwi neighbours (and the rest of the world) were, guess what, living with an unexceptional respiratory virus which was flying under the statistical radar. The politically-approved public health ‘experts’, however, went collectively mad and they spooked panicky politicians into pressing the big self-destruct lockdown button and demonstratively slamming shut the stable doors by closing their borders, long after the viral horse had bolted.
Can border closures work if the timing is right?
Closing Australia’s borders in March 2020 was way too late to have affected the course of the current virus but could closing the borders work if the timing were right? As a purely academic thought experiment, the answer is ‘yes’ but, in reality, the question is entirely moot. To be practicable, every government in the world (Beijing, I’m looking at you) would need to be fully on top of organic viral generation in its wet markets and ready to instantly alert the world to any new virus threat from that source. Every country would also need to be open about their secret (see the problem, here?) bio-research laboratory work or funding of same (and that means you, Washington, where Fauci’s lot shovelled millions to the Wuhan Institute of Virology). In short, every country would need to be a responsible, diligent and transparent world citizen – an impossibility from the off. Even if every single country was spotlessly angelic in monitoring and reporting new threats, viruses move way too fast because of mass population mobility which spreads a virus far and wide before you can say ‘highly transmissible’.
Only where a virus is endemic but geographically confined to specific regions from which international travel is very limited and easily monitored (Ebola in certain African countries, for example), governments in destination countries should and could intervene effectively to stop its import through a requirement of (effective) vaccination or the quarantine of in-bound travellers. This scenario does not apply, however, to geographically promiscuous viruses like H1N1, Asian flu, bird flu, SARS I and now SARS II (which were all ‘Made in China’ and quickly exported globally).
Controlling such viruses through controlling human travel is a non-starter which is why no previous WHO or country-specific pandemic response plan had recommended closed borders. Closing a country’s borders is simply impracticable against a fast-moving virus, especially one emanating from travel-enthusiastic China.
The Seasonality Blindspot
Virus seasonality, which was once taken-for-granted scientific and popular wisdom, has now, with SARS-CoV-2, become a convenient lacunae that allows the Zero Covid fanatics to praise ‘fortress Australia’ and New Zealand for their ‘successful’ policy of closing borders, a policy which is portrayed as the magic bullet in the anti-virus armoury responsible for keeping these countries’ Covid stats so low.
What has made all, or nearly all, the difference, however, in these countries’ low Covid stats has much more to do with seasonal timing than with turning off the traveller tap. September/October 2019, when the virus began its globe-trotting expedition, was springtime in the southern hemisphere ahead of a typical, blazing Australian summer (Dec/Jan/Feb), a season typically hostile to seasonal viruses. Mega-doses of sunshine in Australia acted like lead in the virus’ saddlebags, hampering its spread from the get-go so that, by the time the lemming governments of Australia and New Zealand followed their northern hemisphere dunderheads in the big lockdown of early 2020, and raised the drawbridge to international travel, viral spread had pretty well been moderated (but not totally eliminated) before it could do as much damage as in colder, less sunny climes in the top half of the globe.
Seasonality, however, had disappeared from the scientific lexicon of the Australian epidemiological modellers (Professors Jodie McVernon and James McCaw of Melbourne’s Doherty Institute) who had been commissioned by the federal government to come up with some virus forecasts. These copycat ‘experts’ not only slavishly replicated Neil Ferguson’s mad modellers of Imperial College London by adopting both an ‘R’ value (for what that is worth) and an Infection Fatality Rate which were way over the odds (some four-fold higher than the actual figures) but did not factor in the season of the year in Australia. If they had done so, this would have further dialled down their terrifying projections of a viral tidal wave about to swamp the hospitals. Instead, they served up what the government wanted so that it, too, could book its berth on the ship of political fools heading towards lockdown disaster whilst being serenaded by the electorate for ‘keeping them safe’.
So, it looks like Australia just got lucky with the timing of the virus below the equator compared to global upstairs which was in more virus-friendly winter gloom. Australia was thus able to let pre-existing cross-immunity and naturally-acquired infection quietly build up herd immunity whilst minimising virus casualties largely because of sheer spring/summer luck.
To be continued…
Next week we’ll publish the next edition of this two-part update from Australia.