Following comments by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison that an elimination strategy is fruitless, an epidemiologist looks into the Delta crystal ball

When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared on the 9 News Breakfast show on Tuesday morning, he had New Zealand in his back pocket as an example of a failed elimination strategy.

“Any state and territory that thinks that somehow they can protect themselves from Covid with the Delta strain forever, that’s just absurd,” he said. “New Zealand can’t do that. They were following an elimination strategy. They’re in lockdown.”

Like when Donald Trump made his tone-deaf accusation that New Zealand had failed to contain the virus after a surge of nine cases last August, this seemed to get lawmakers’ backs up.

Last year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hit back at Trump by pointing out the gulf between the death toll of 22 in New Zealand and 170,000 in the US at the time.

With our neighbours across the ditch, the Government took pains to be a little bit more diplomatic.

“I just don’t see it the way that Scott Morrison and others are presenting it,” Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson told Newstalk ZB‘s Mike Hosking on Tuesday. “Certainly every public health expert I speak to says that what we’re doing right now is exactly the right strategy for New Zealand.”

University of Auckland epidemiologist Rod Jackson said the comments were inane and ridiculous, especially Morrison talking about forever.

“I’m unaware of anyone in New Zealand saying forever,” he said. He believes part of the problem is the conflation of the terms eradication and elimination.

“Elimination refers to a specific population at a specific point in time,” he said. “Eradication means no more of the virus in the world – perhaps like smallpox. It’s a shame the words are so similar.”

It does seem that Morrison’s use of the word forever would more accurately describe eradication – while New Zealand’s approach is to court elimination for just as long as it takes for a safe level of the population to be vaccinated.

Professor Rod Jackson says New Zealand needs to plug all the holes in the border until as many people as possible are vaccinated. Photo: Supplied

Jackson said the big difference is the timeframe.

“Before Delta, if a significant percentage of the population was vaccinated, we may not have had an outbreak even with open borders,” he said. “With Delta – they say you will either get vaccinated or you will get it.”

Although previous variants of Covid spread exponentially – all that takes is the infection spreading from one person to an average of more than one other – Jackson warns the exponential rate of spread for the Delta variant is a much steeper graph.

“Pre-Delta, a case getting through the border is a bit like a spark in a forest,” he said. “It’s not certain it will start a forest fire. But with Delta, it’s more like a flamethrower than a spark.”

And now that New Zealand has been dealt the Delta hand, Jackson believes it’s time to put our foot on the gas when it comes to vaccination.

“Virologists are now saying that if you are not vaccinated, eventually you will get it,” he said.

There’s an air of inevitability in the way public health experts speak about the virus nowadays.

Jackson calls it the ‘exponential threat’ – the wildfire potential for the Delta variant to take over communities, as seen in New South Wales, where 919 new locally acquired cases were announced on Wednesday, marking Australia’s highest daily total since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Before Delta, we could respond with a scalpel,” Jackson said. “But with Delta, you need a sledgehammer.”

A model of the ‘exponential threat’ of the Delta variant, based on each infected person passing the virus on to an average of six people.

Speaking today, Minister for Covid Response Chris Hipkins said the public can expect the public health response to change, but they are certainly not giving up on the elimination strategy just yet.

“It’s too soon to throw in the towel. It would be an absolute waste for us to throw this out now,” he said. “You will see changes in the medium term. We do want to get to the point where lockdowns aren’t the answer to outbreaks in our community, but we aren’t yet at that point.”

One of the few advantages of the Delta variant for humans is it doesn’t seem to be any more fatal than the original variants, Jackson said.

His worry is that further variants could be deadlier, along with the rampant infectiousness of Delta.

But the best way to prepare for such a possibility is the same as the solution for Delta, he contends – widespread vaccination.

“There’s only one way we’ll deal with Delta,” he said. “Getting as many people as possible immunised – including children.”

However, his view of the future had an optimistic tinge as well. Jackson said because Covid has not proven to be as quickly-mutating as influenza, world-wide vaccination may get it under control.

“Covid is not a super mutator like the flu,” he said. “We have to have a new flu vaccine every year – we can reduce the flu but we can’t stop it. In comparison, Covid mutates quite slowly.

“I see life and death at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “It could become much more severe – or it could disappear.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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