COVID-19 case confirmed in NZ – Expert Reaction

After spreading across the globe for months, the first case of COVID-19 has been reported in New Zealand.

The Ministry of Health says the risk of a community outbreak is low, due to their preparedness and the high awareness of the disease.

The Science Media Centre has gathered the following expert comments.

Professor Michael Baker, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, comments:

“This first confirmed Covid-19 case in NZ has been widely expected for several weeks. Particularly given that more than 20 cases have been confirmed in Australia.

“The description of this case and how it was identified and diagnosed shows that management was exemplary at all stages. This case is a warning to New Zealand that we cannot be complacent about the global Covid-19 pandemic that will affect most countries this year.

“It shows that we are now entering the next stage of our pandemic plan, which is the ‘stamp it out’ stage of identifying and controlling cases and their contacts, and investigating and controlling chains of transmission.

“Fortunately, both Australia and NZ have so far not seen community transmission.  But we must prepare for this eventuality.

“Now is the time for maximum pandemic preparation.”

Conflict of interest statement: No conflict of interest.

Professor Miguel Quiñones-Mateu, Webster Family Chair in Viral Pathogenesis, University of Otago, comments:

“We knew this would happen and New Zealand authorities have been preparing for this event for many weeks now.  Everything is in place to control, try to minimize, potential local infections with this highly transmissible virus.

“Transparency, open communication, and continued monitoring are the best way to deal with this epidemic.

“People need to continue with their daily lives, paying extra attention to normal hygiene: washing our hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and using hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available, is the best way to stay healthy (not only against SARS-CoV-2 but any other viral, bacterial pathogen). And avoid touching our face with uncleaned hands!”

Conflict of interest statement: No conflict of interest.

Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, Vaccinologist, University of Auckland, comments:

“Like the large friendly letters across a certain popular book ‘Don’t Panic!’

“The inevitable has happened and New Zealand has its first case of COVID-19. What does this all mean? The science of infection control is not new and it is constantly evolving. It is to science we need to turn to guide us through this latest challenge. First, keep in mind the facts. China has faced an epidemic of a new infection. Out of a population of 1.4 billion there have been around 78,000 cases confirmed and 2600 deaths, and this hit them out of the blue. The rate of new cases there has slowed and this demonstrates that by moving swiftly it is possible to manage this, at least for a while. As the WHO notes, we are not witnessing large-scale deaths at this time. Now we concern ourselves with other regions that are not coping with their outbreaks, in particular Iran. Many countries have had cases, multiple cases, and they have thus far contained them, for example the UK. There is no reason to think that we can’t also manage the cases that will inevitably come to our shores, certainly in the early stages. Now we must look to our public health experts and follow their guidance. Remember that what they recommend is backed by the best scientific evidence.

“Let loose, this virus could make many people sick. However, clearly with the right measures it can be contained. It is really important to follow the guidance from our public health authorities, they have trained for this. Having good public health communication campaigns that reach all our communities is vital not only to reduce risk of spread but also to ensure people are not afraid and know how to be prepared. Ultimately, this may become just one of the many infections we live with. Also, there comes a point at which risk declines, people become immune and there are fewer people to spread the virus, it runs out of susceptible hosts. Remember, most people have a mild infection, at this time we do not really know many people have been infected, only the confirmed number of cases.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Helen has led a number of industry funded studies. These have all been investigator conceived and led. She does not receive honorarium from industry personally. She has received industry support to attend some conferences and has contributed to Expert Advisory meetings for GSK, Merck, and Pfizer.”