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Today, lead researcher at the Kirby Institute Raina MacIntyre on hope, denial and Covid-19.

Omicron #3: Stuck between anger and denial

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As Australia faces a new wave of Covid-19 variants, experts say the country has a chance to plot a different course with the virus.

That involves acknowledging that it is not going away - that it will be here for a long time, and that masks and ventilation will be needed to manage it.

Today, lead researcher at the Kirby Institute Raina MacIntyre on hope, denial and Covid-19.

Socials: Stay in touch with us on Twitter and Instagram.

Guest: Lead researcher at the Kirby Institute Raina MacIntyre.

Read Transcript

[Theme music starts]

##RUBY:
From Schwartz Media,  I’m Ruby Jones -  this is *7am*

##Archival Tape – Reporter
*“Hospitalisations for COVID-19 have reached an all time high across the country, 5439 people are now in hospital with the virus… “*

##RUBY:
Once again, Covid-19 case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths are rising. 

##Archival Tape – Today reporter: 
*“In the past week, more than 320,000 Australians have registered a Covid positive result. But this current Omicron wave is yet to hit its peak.”*

##RUBY:
This new wave of infections has prompted new warnings from health experts… 

##Archival Tape – Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly
*“Essentially, my message today is that there is a new variant of Covid-19 that is circulating in the community and it poses a significant new threat. The reason for that is because it's much more infectious than earlier variants, this is the BA5 and BA4…”*

##RUBY:
Those experts warn new strains of the virus are more infectious, and more resistant to our current vaccines.

##Archival Tape – Doctor:
*“The antibodies that we've produced from the vaccine or from prior infections appear to be less effective against these BA5 variants, probably in the order of 2 to 4 fold compared to, let's say, BA1 variants.”*

##RUBY:
So, how are we responding to this threat? 

##Archival Tape – Mark Butler: 
*“This is going to be a tough few weeks for Australia. Case numbers are rising and hospitalisations are rising as well. That's a particular concern for all governments and for the broader community”. *

##RUBY:
And should we be taking the opportunity to plot a different course - before infections peak? Today, lead researcher at the Kirby Institute Raina MacIntyre on hope, denial and Covid-19. 

It’s Monday August 1. 

[Theme music ends]

##RUBY:
Raina. Would you mind just introducing yourself as a way to get us started?

##RAINA:
Sure. I'm Raina MacIntyre. I'm a public health physician and I'm an academic and researcher at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales.

##RUBY:
And are you still advising the World Health Organisation?

##RAINA:
I'm on a couple of working groups for the W.H.O., including the Covid Vaccination Composition Technical Advisory Group and the Sage Ad Hoc Working Group on monkeypox and smallpox. 

##RUBY:
Mm hmm. Okay. And, Raina, the last time that you and I spoke, that was back in April, so three months ago… and at that time, Covid case numbers were rising. There were two and a half thousand Australians in hospital. That figure has now doubled to 5000, and we're not even at the peak of this wave of infections. So what do you think when you look around now at the situation that we've found ourselves in? 

##RAINA:
Well, it's unfortunate really… because there are preventable hospitalisations and preventable deaths, preventable long Covid, all occurring in real time. And we - a lot of people have got the message that the pandemic is over. You know, and I think some people genuinely have believed that. And so as a society, there's been far less concern about Covid than there was, say, a year ago. And people really haven't been adequately informed or empowered to do the things that they can do to improve their own protection.

##RUBY:
Ok. So a lot less concern in the community than we have seen in the past - but we are in the midst of a wave of infections. Can you tell me about the strains of the virus that we’re seeing now - the BA4 and BA5 variants? 

##RAINA:
So they are part of the Omicron group of sub-variants, and they are very, very distant to the original virus that emerged in 2020. And that was the virus that the vaccines are made against, which means that there's more what we call vaccine escape now with especially BA4 and 5, which have more immune evasion. So the ability to evade the immune system and the antibodies we've developed through the vaccines. Doesn't mean vaccines don't work. They do work. They are really important. But vaccines alone are not enough. You need more than just vaccines because this virus is so quick in mutating and evading the protections we've got. So that includes masks and really everybody… the more people who are wearing masks, the more protection we'll get. And then we need to address safe indoor air and that can be achieved through ventilation, which could be as simple as opening a window or using an air purifier.

And those are not the only measures. Testing and tracing is really important too! Testing is important because when you identify people who are infected, then those people can isolate and not infect others. If nobody's getting tested because testing is difficult to come across, or it's expensive, then there's going to be infected people who are just mildly symptomatic or not symptomatic wandering around and infecting other people. And so you get this snowballing effect of a growing epidemic. 

##RUBY:
Mmm and Raina, when we spoke last you mentioned a lot of these measures, and you also predicted what would happen if new strains of the virus emerged, so it seems like we knew - or should have known - that a lot of this might happen. A lot of this has come true…

##RAINA:
Yeah, I really think it's like the Kubler-Ross stages of grief, you know, which is denial, anger and a few other steps. And then you get to acceptance at the end. And I think most, most of us in society and everywhere in the world are stuck somewhere between denial and anger. And you can't blame people because that's been the dominant global narrative. The pandemic is over, you know, and let's just live our lives. But, you know, the virus has other ideas.

##RUBY:
We’ll be back in a moment.

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##RUBY:
Raina, are we now at the point where we need to accept that Covid-19 is here to stay - that it will keep mutating and keep infecting us? 

##RAINA:
I think the sooner we accept that, the better off we will all be because then we can start doing the things we need to do to actually adapt to live with the virus better. And the way to do that is not to just deny that it's real and to just carry on as if nothing was happening that would be the equivalent of, you know, a nuclear holocaust, saying, you know, I'm sick of this and I'm going out to play. You know, that's fine. Go out and play. But you're going to get radiation sickness and, you know, you might die from that. So I think that acceptance will come. But unfortunately, I think it won't be for a while yet. And I think there'll be a lot of suffering and loss that will have to occur before societies as a whole accept that we have to adapt and actually learn to use different strategies to mitigate the damage this virus causes.

##RUBY:
Mm. And if that is the case, if things are permanently changed from Covid-19, what does that mean for what the world looks like? Because different countries have approached Covid in very different ways, haven't they? 

##RAINA:
They have. But I think the one thing that doesn't get talked about as much as it should get talked about is the chronic complications of Covid, even mild Covid. There's just been a study that's just come out that showed that in people with mild Covid who did not need to be hospitalised, the risk of long Covid is actually higher in younger people aged 18 to 30 compared to people over 30. And that's a worry. That's the generation that's going to carry us into the future and be the future of the world, them and our children. So what is the effect of multiple reinfections on young people and children? You know, we've sort of flipped it around to only focus on the acute illness, which we know is more severe in older people. But what about long Covid? 

I suspect that countries that have not done enough to mitigate transmission will have substantial burdens of chronic disease and disability as a result of Covid. And that's a combination of the impacts on the heart - so heart failure-  on the lungs, respiratory failure and on the brain and the nervous system. Neuro-cognitive deficits, including dementia, is possible. You know, Alzheimer's associations in the world are already measuring and looking at this, expecting to see a rise in dementia and immunological effects. There's now good evidence that the virus actually affects our T cells and our immune system and it can get us sort of malfunctioning immune system after Covid in a substantial proportion of people. And the more reinfections you get, the worse that gets in some cases. So in whole populations, you know, even if 10% of the population has these complications, that's going to have an enormous societal health system's and economic burden. This pandemic has been a catastrophic event globally  and despite a lot of people kind of denying it and saying it's back to normal, everything's good, it's had a catastrophic impact. It's going to keep having a catastrophic impact, including the long term effects on human health.

##RUBY:
So what do you think is likely to happen next then, in the short term? What is the next iteration of the pandemic going to be like? 

##RAINA:
Hmm. Well, there's many different ways it could go in terms of how much damage it's going to cause. I think Australia is in a unique position. We don't have to necessarily just blindly follow other countries like the UK and the US. I don't think those are good models to follow anyway. We've got a chance to kind of set our own path and take our own destiny into our hands and make it better for Australians into the future. And partly it's about bringing people together as well to, you know, it's a very difficult thing that we're facing with this pandemic. And the easier option for leadership, which is what we've seen in the last couple of years, is to divide people, to set people against each other. And that's what we've seen. We've seen a lot of hostility and, you know, animosity. And the enemy is the virus. It's not other people, you know. I hope that  the new government will try to unite people and take us through this journey together rather than divided. 

##RUBY:
Hmm. Because ultimately, Covid-19 is here now, and it's not going away. 

##RAINA:
Yeah. And we have to deal with it. We have to actually, you know, accept that there is a problem and deal with it.

##RUBY:
Mm. I have to say your words are optimistic, but your tone… your tone isn’t. 

##RAINA:
Look, I think for Australia there is hope and there is some… we're at a kind of crossroads. It really will depend on a lot of things and decisions that are made and how things go from here on. There's, there’s many possible futures. 

##RUBY:
Raina, thank you so much.

##RAINA:
Okay, thanks so much. Bye.

[ADVERTISEMENT] 

[Theme music starts]

##RUBY:
Also in the news today:
Campaigners for the Uluṟu Statement from the Heart have welcomed Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s landmark speech at Garma this weekend, where he outlined his support for a Voice to Parliament, committed to a referendum this term, and suggested a possible question. He said the question could be as simple as: “Do you support an alteration to the constitution that establishes an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice?”

and

Indigenous leaders and entertainers have paid tribute to Archie Roach, who has died at the age of 66. The musician was an advocate for Indigenous rights and the stolen generations, of which he was a member. The Prime Minister said: “Our country has lost a brilliant talent, a powerful and prolific national truth teller.”

I’m Ruby Jones this is *7am* - see you tomorrow. 

[Theme music ends]

Background Reading

opinion
July 30, 2022
Hope, denial and Covid-19

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Raina MacIntyre leads the biosecurity program at the Kirby Institute. She is on the World Health Organization’s technical advisory group on Covid-19 vaccine composition.

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