We need light on dark road ahead

Public briefings on COVID-19 from Prime Minister Scott Morrison down are very much about the clear and present danger, with a laser focus on ensuring the rate of infections does not overwhelm the health system. "Flattening the curve" has become shorthand for a raft of increasingly strict social distancing measures.

While highlighting the immediate danger is understandable, the lack of discussion on the road ahead once the wave of infections slows does imply life could well return to normal. A clear-eyed view of what is needed to rid the world of this pandemic paints a very different picture. It's time our political and medical leaders made that clear.

Residents of China wearing protective gear, where they are tentatively lifting restrictions. Credit:AP

While there are still many unknowns about COVID-19, the scientific tools needed to wage battle with it are mostly knowns. The holy grail of breakthroughs would be a vaccine. No such prevention exists for other similar viruses such as SARS or MERS, but the enormous global effort under way to crack it this time for COVID-19 means a time frame of 12-18 months, unprecedented in terms of speed, is not without hope.

Next on the wishlist would be the discovery of an antiviral that would treat those inflicted with the life-threatening symptoms of COVID-19. A needle-in-a-haystack effort, tens of thousands of pre-existing drugs are being tested for their potential to minimise COVID-19's deadly toll. That would open the door to flipping the rule book, allowing the infection to spread in a non-lethal way. It would help create what scientists term a "herd immunity", where at least 60 per cent of a community is infected, giving them immunity similar to a vaccine and dramatically impeding any future potential spread.

While human trials have been fast-tracked for several vaccines and antiviral drugs, the extensive testing essential before producing a pandemic buster at scale means neither is going to be part of a doctor's arsenal for many months. So where does that leave nations fighting the virus?

China and Singapore give us a window into the forseeable future. While Beijing has heralded its lifting of restrictions, allowing people to get back to work, it has been faltering at best. It is having to impose strict border controls to stop infected people entering the country and lockdowns are returning in districts where outbreaks have reappeared. Singapore, a role model in keeping infections to a minimum, is also suffering from a second wave of infections.

The reality is that without a vaccine or antiviral treatment, there is no way of keeping a check on infections besides what most nations, with varying success, are doing now: testing as widely as possible, quarantining those infected, social distancing and contact tracing. But you can't keep a nation in full lockdown for a year or two waiting for a medical breakthrough.

Like China, most countries will probably alternate between lifting restrictions as infection rates fall, then locking down when the spread spikes, an inevitable consequence of people coming into closer contact. As the scientific community gains a better understanding of COVID-19, and testing of immunity levels is developed, there is some hope that the lockdowns could become better targeted than the widespread stay-at-home restrictions. But that is no guarantee.

That is a reality and a conversation that is not taking place in Australia. Surely it's time people got the full picture of the long road ahead. If you were thinking you were going to the MCG this year to watch AFL, you may need to think again.

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