By Graham Nowland
Only when COVID-19 testers get to test more widely do we stand a chance of avoiding the worst this virus can dish out. That is what the overseas evidence is telling us. The governments in Australia seem to realise this. Western Australia Health Minister, Roger Cook, unveiled expanded testing will start on Thursday. The other states are thought to be doing the same.
It’s good news, but should include a model which looks for a worrying phenomenon, asymptomatic carriers. This is according to a professional data analyst who also suggests sampling methods could minimise the number of kits used.
Mr Cook could not at this stage reveal any details on the tests, statistical models or criteria. His message was clear though. ‘We need to do research not only in the labs but on the front line as well.’ He said maps are coming that will show which suburbs are affected. ‘They are euphemistically called ‘heat-maps’ and show the intensity of cases locally’. These could be here within 24 hours. Presumably they will be updated as the expanded testing starts to yield results.
More generally he said, ‘We are doing a virtual Wuhan making sure we reconfigure our beds utilising under-used beds to essentially rebuild a whole new hospital made up of hundreds of beds dedicated to COVID-19’. Hundreds of respirators are also on the way from overseas along with other equipment.
Mentioning Wuhan as a point of reference is a breakthrough. Up to now any questions about the Chinese experience have been curved away. The change suggests a policy adjustment by the National Cabinet which is flowing into the states’ health departments.
in December and January China instigated two tough but unsuccessful waves of measures against COVID-19. The government were shaken to realised encouraging dips in numbers of new cases didn’t stop deaths and hospital overload. It sent teams of doctors and scientists into Wuhan to make major reassessments and get fresh evidence for analysis. Soon they found out they needed to know a lot more about where local clusters had got hold. They realised transmission within the family especially drove the virus in its early stages in Wuhan. They also discovered evidence of asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 – carriers with no symptoms.
Deputy chief medical officer, Professor Paul Kelly, stated five days ago asymptomatic transmission is an issue. WA Health information shows current tests at hospitals aim mainly to confirm symptoms are really COVID-19.
Evidence on the net from respectable sources creates a strong suspicion that other testing is also needed. The professional mathematician who, until very recently worked in a prominent data analysis company in Perth, confirmed this.
‘Trying to get information on the relationship of testing and community is quite a challenging problem and, given the urgency testing those with symptoms, may be a bit much to promise. I think the big question for Health is how they can tell there are not more people out there who are asymptomatic. For instance, what proportion of the people they have traced down so far have no symptoms.
‘A statistical sample could be designed to try to identify the extent of community spread, especially of those who may display no symptoms or mild symptoms. Using statistical sampling methodology this could be designed in such a way to minimise the quantity of tests required. Currently as all testing has only been on overseas travellers or those with a known contact, and the cases have to display more severe symptoms, there is currently no information on the extent of community spread (if any).
‘The WA minister for health Roger Cook has announced the state would be expanding its testing regime for COVID-19, but still only including those with severe symptoms. While this is a step in the right direction it still leaves open the question of whether there is widespread asymptomatic spread’.
With testing apparently about to go up to the front line, wherever that is, will this mean new jobs? Can stood-down workers quickly retrain to do testing? If so, will they need masks and protective gear which appear to be short supply in Australia?
Some factories in Australia do appear to be gearing up to produce more test kits, masks and protective clothing. However, today’s news also reveals we are going overseas for respirators and other high-tech COVID-19 equipment. Shouldn’t we do that here too, given we have the resources and a work force being stood down?
(The Chinese data comes from a Harvard University report, a WHO report, and a Chinese foreign affairs press release signed by ambassador to Ghana, Shi Ting Wang. China is currently helping Ghana manage its COVID-19 outbreak).
Graham Nowland is an ex-staff news reporter/photographer on world-leading shipping paper, Lloyds List DCN. Graham was also a regular freelance feature writer for West Australian, Sunday Times, and Brisbane Courier-Mail and many others.
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