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Rio Tinto mass test unmasked asymptomatic COVID-19 case

By Graham Nowland

The COVID-19 WA case at Perth Airport reported yesterday potentially has deep implications. Had it not been for the rapid finger-prick blood test and other mass screening measures, announced as expanded by Rio Tinto yesterday, this FIFO worker would have boarded the plane. After flying up to the Pilbara he might have infected at least some of his co-workers at the massive iron ore operations there.

It is worth briefly revisiting the news item. The virtually immediate results from blanket finger-prick blood tests, of all returning shift workers, revealed eight had suspicious anti-bodies. The eight were then tested again for the virus itself. This revealed one had COVID-19.

The employee had been to Bali, recounted Premier Mark McGowan, in a now familiar tone of slight exasperation. Yes, he had completed the compulsory 14 days isolation. Yes, he was apparently clear. Yes he was headed back to work.

Now this is an asymptomatic case though the word was never mentioned. Some reporters tried to form focusing questions. The premier’s attack on the worker’s irresponsibility in flying off to Bali in the middle of a pandemic seemed to distract them.

He also brushed off questions about Rio’s blood test for antibodies, used on some 1200 employees by then. He noted that ‘our test’ for the virus was the one that actually identified this COVID-19 case.

There seems to be a political avoidance of the asymptomatic case issue in spite of mounting concerns globally. Also in spite of Annika Blau’s well researched article on 4th April on the ABC Perth News website. The World Health Organisation has claimed such cases are rare and the Federal Health Department advice to clinicians repeats this. The reporter presented some of the growing evidence which suggest WHO, and our national government, might be wrong.

Over the last six or so weeks some reliable sources have affirmed the existence of asymptomatic COVID-19 cases. Now this week Reuters reported that medical officers on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt had so far tested 94% of its crew. More than half of 600 sailors who tested positive showed no symptoms. The implication is that young, healthy-looking sailors on this active warship were, until identified in mass tests, potentially stealth transmitters.

Also less than a week ago the venerable and conservative medical journal, Lancet in Britain, wrote:

‘There is a powerful case in support of mass testing of both symptomatic and asymptomatic HCWs (Health Care workers) to reduce the risk of nosocomial (originating in a hospital ) transmission.’

This is because many fully protected front line health care workers in Britain are self-isolating unnecessarily when, for example, they suspect a breakdown in protection. Lancet argues strongly that mass testing will reveal any asymptomatic cases and allow the others to return to the front line.

Casting around Britain and the world for evidence, the article states: ‘The number of asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 is significant.’ The writer hedges a lot which spoils the effect but does commit when evidence is overwhelming and solid.

The best example centres on another ship. Vessels on long ocean voyages seem to generate conditions that intensely cultivate the virus while also facilitating the gathering of hard evidence about what happens. This kind of account seems to be as good as laboratory testing as far as Lancet is concerned. The one chosen rendered a similar result to the American aircraft carrier.

‘In a study of COVID-19 symptomatic and asymptomatic infection on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, 328 of the 634 positive cases (51·7%) were asymptomatic at the time of testing’ Lancet states unequivocally.’

Both news items appeared not long before Rio Tinto flushed out the asymptomatic case at Perth airport. Yet no one at Premier McGowan’s press conference uttered the word ‘asymptomatic’ in either a statement or a question.

Also no one suggested Rio Tinto’s mass testing initiative might be applied more widely, although one reporter tried hard to get Mark McGowan into that target area. He diverted her with the point that ‘our tests’ (meaning the government’s viral ones) were better than Rio Tinto’s blood test for antibodies. Yet Rio’s rapid mass blood testing rung the alarm and helped stop a COVID infected worker boarding the plane north.

Whatever the governments do and say they have to be careful. But in not doing any mass testing, perhaps using both types of test in combination and looking for asymptomatic cases, they might be flying half-blind. Rio’s screening success, the USS Theodore Roosevelt case, the Diamond Princess, even conservative British doctors; all now suggest that refined mass testing wherever possible might be important. It might be the only way to get deeper and more authentic information about exactly how this complex, subtle and devastating disease transmits.

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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  1. Graham

    If Rio Tinto can mass screen its workers – note the positive worker was not a direct employee of Rio Tinto – can our supermarkets screen their customers by requiring them to have a mobile phone with the government’s “voluntary” app installed before allowing them to enter the store?

    Can and will the OHS inspectorate issue prohibition orders requiring supermarkets to impose such a restriction on entry? After all, allowing an infected person entry to the store when that person could be screened out would seem a rather basic breach of the employer obligation to provide a safe working environment for employees.

  2. nonsibicunctis

    What is it with our politicians? Are they all so incredibly arrogant that they always believe themselves right? Alternatively, are they all lacking intellectual ability? Is there something in the ether around political life that causes otherwise sensible and relatively intelligent human beings to act indisputably ignorantly or stupidly?

    It seems that those in the Free World are only too ready to criticise the Chinese and the Russians for lack of transparency and misleading information, yet our own governments act just as badly, even if in slightly different ways.

    The contradictions, inconsistencies, and parallel running differing policies of state governments, often also at odds with the federal government which, itself doesn’t seem able to get its story straight, are enough to confuse the most intelligent and aware of us, let alone Joe Blough and Jane Doe.

    I’ve followed politics in this nation and across the World for around 50 years and had a bird’s eye view of many politically disastrous or obscene events. However, I have to admit that the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic by our own and other governments really does highlight how, regardless of ideology, wealth, geography, tradition, culture, resources or, indeed, any other difference, politicians seem extremely inept and even incapable of sensible decision making and evidential analysis when it most matters. They also, it seems, are universally averse to transparency and essential public disclosure in direct and straight-forward language that is simple enough for virtually everyone to understand.

    If this is the best that our various ideologies and political systems and structures can bring to dealing with universal crises then I can see no hope for human progress beyond a downward race to mutual annihilation or natural extinction.

  3. wam

    History always has lessons.
    If you look at typhoid mary mallon you will see the need for testing in general and absolute necessity for fifo workers

    ps anyone here confident enough to to believe they are wrong? Christian enough to know they are right? Smart enough to know they know a little different from everyone else?

  4. Bruce

    The Rio-Tinto test is for antibodies, it shows if the person has had the virus but not necessarily if the person has it now. “This screening process is not a test for COVID-19”

    Do people really want to be tested every time they enter a public place? Last year there were about 4000 people died from seasonal flu. Victims of the flu obviously caught the virus from someone which means that testing for flu virus should be happening every day, if you follow the testing logic. Does everyone want to start and end the day with a blood test?

    Meanwhile, the Public Health Agency of Sweden estimates they might have herd immunity by May 2020.
    Fancy that, allowing people to trust in their own body to use its inherent ability to develop immunity.

    Protect the vulnerable sure, but how about common sense? Or is it a case of let’s never fully start the economy again?

  5. nonsibicunctis

    Bruce, the problem with common sense is that it is usually common nonsense. No, it is not a case of “never fully start the economy again”; it is a case of put people before profit.

    This is primarily a health crisis. Believe it or not, the economic implications are a symptom of it, not vice versa. Donald Trump thinking has never been and isn’t now the way to go.

    Herd immunity is not a good idea, particularly if you are one of those who is sacrificed to it along the way.

    Think again, perhaps.

  6. Bruce

    Hi nonsi, thought about it for about 1.5 seconds and this stream of consciousness appeared ‘the herd is more than you (ie. to ‘me’)’. So, would I rather risk it to nature, trust my body to its immune response or do I say and pretend to myself there is only one possible solution, ie. Lockdown and destroy most of the economy and especially small businesses, even though Swedes are showing us another way? There are a number of treatments to covid 19 already, I’ll take my chances thanks, and if I get the virus I’ll face that then. Here’s a clue, I am mortal.

  7. nonsibicunctis

    Okey Dokey, Bruce, my apologies. I don’t think that there is only one way to tackle this pandemic but I did, (mistakenly, it seems) read your comment as suggesting that the ‘Herd immunity’ response was preferably to that of quarantining and social distancing – or whatever names one cares to place on limiting contact rather than inviting it. I didn’t understand that you were speaking only of your own risk. perhaps because the ‘Herd immunity’ option necessitates the mass of the population putting themselves at risk.

    I also read you to be suggesting that economic imperatives are more important than those of people’s health. Clearly, I don’t agree with that on principle. However, I don’t agree with it for pragmatic reasons, either, being aware of what Trump’s talk and (in) actions have brought about in North America, i.e. from a hoax to an easily defeated enemy, to the worst death toll in the World in just a matter of weeks.

    Economics before people? No thank you. That, in my view, is a major reason for the World being in such a sorry state and for the increasing reversion for the average person from emancipated participation in decisions affecting their collective and individual well-being. I don’t believe that we survive because of economics, productivity, wealth, jobs. For me that is a myth socialised into us in order to benefit a small cohort of the population – the 1%, if you like.

    However, I do have some sympathy for your view, in as much as I have found myself wondering why so much has been and is being made of this pandemic when compared with the suffering, pain and death of millions in the majority world, it is but a blip. Yet we accept, with barely a thought, the obscenity of poverty, suffering and death in the majority world and yet could prevent it much, much, more easily and with a much greater certainty than we will have with the pandemic. Why is that? I know but I wonder if you do or if you have even thought about it.

    If I sound unnecessarily argumentative or hostile, please excuse me. I try to say it as I see it and very few can accept that my passion, vehemence or whatever is directed towards the issue, not as they tend to assume, at the individual (s) who are putting an agenda that I question or oppose. I am not attempting to attack or slight you. I simply believe that you haven’t given your view sufficient thought – yes, I know, that means I must be arrogant … why do I do this … I should just shut up and go away … o.k. then, have it your way – my life and I am worthless anyway, why should anyone else care about them?

    Incidentally, are we not all mortal?

  8. Bruce

    Hi nonsibicunctis, as far as a herd immunity response being preferable to quarantining and social distancing, I look at what both offer. Sweden is practicing both, and their Health Department official line is that 70-80 percent of people will get the virus and likely most will get immunity. That still leaves certain groups vulnerable and in need of protection, eg via self-isolation and or treatments. If I lived there I would be happy to trust this body’s natural process but I understand that others won’t, and in the case of immune-comprised, can’t. If a person is in the latter group then herd immunity has nothing to offer, they will need to rely on a medical solution rather than nature. I won’t get in the way of anyone wanting to take drugs or vaccines if they so wish. In regard to drugs and supplements, I like the work of French researcher Dr Didier Raoult. In regard to vaccines I like the work of Dr Sherri Tenpenny.
    Economics versus Sane Economics.
    Who believes our national health policies somehow relate to sane economics? If they did there would be a push to remove high-fat, high sugar foods from supermarkets, GMO would be basically banned (I read last week that one type of heritage corn had 168 times the vitamin value of one its genetically modified cousins), alcohol misuse would face stronger controls (alcohol related hospital stays and damage runs at more than 4 times any taxes taken), heart disease + cerebrovascular diseases + dementia total over 40,000 deaths per year and a good portion of the damage could arguably said to be caused by adulterated and over-processed foods. Why has the Health Department not brought into line food manufacturers to get the quality of food right? It’s a case of profits for the food giants ahead of public health. I’ll trust the Health Department cares about the average person when I see changes to food standards.
    As far as ‘suggesting that economic imperatives are more important than those of people’s health’, who can calculate how much damage is going to be done in the long run from this shutdown? The law of unintended consequences operates despite the best intentions of health officials who, to the degree they narrowly focus on a virus, will be neglecting the wider inter-related flow of the economy and general health. They can’t have it both ways.
    Yes, I agree with your bigger picture of ‘poverty, suffering and death in the majority world’. The whole thing, local and international, is intertwined and controlled by a self-serving network of corporates who seem to think food is something to patent or adulterate to cause poor health outcomes. Your comment ‘my life and I am worthless anyway, why should anyone else care about them?’ is not my view of your life or my life. Life is life, not mine, not yours. And yes, we are all mortal, strangely behaving in fearful ways as if any one body is not going to succumb to death. Thanks for the chance of this interchange, you pose some thoughtful questions.

  9. Matters Not

    Bruce, by referring to Dr Sherri Tenpenny with approval you just lost credibility – big time. No need to read further. Magical interpretations of the world and all that. As for citing Sweden and its approach – same story. Look at the cumulative figures for Sweden and it neighbours Denmark and Finland and then think again. Note that the vast number of articles written about Sweden’s approach was written by the designer of the policy. Currently in the business of self-justification,

    Batting zero?

  10. nonsibicunctis

    Bruce, thank you for the response and, in particular, for choosing to engage in the issue and accept my own comments as having been for the same reason.

    I, too, welcome the opportunity for a non-abusive and non- aggressive, yet firm exchange of views and perspectives. It is through such exchanges, I believe, that regardless of our immediate reactions, we learn and adjust or develop increased understanding and further questions.

    Stay safe. 🙂

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