Epidemiologists say Australia cannot afford to gamble its future waiting for a safe and effective coronavirus vaccine, and that we should start talking about life without one.
On Monday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that researchers may never manage to develop a coronavirus vaccine that works – and even if they do it could provide only limited protection.
Epidemiologists say life in Australia will look very different in a couple of years if this is the case and an economics expert has warned of a “worrying world” for several Australian industries if community transmission continues.
Professor of Epidemiology at UNSW, Mary-Louise McLaws said there was no guarantee of a safe vaccine being ready for use in Australia any time soon.
“We cannot expect to carry on living our lives the way were before in the hope that a vaccine is around the corner,” she said. “To ensure that the vaccine is safe, the scientists need time and there is enough pressure on them already. We cannot afford to cut corners when it comes to health.”
Even if a safe vaccine is discovered, she said it could be several additional months before it is available in Australia.
University of South Australia Professor Adrian Esterman said he was more optimistic than the WHO, given recent success in trials at the UK’s Oxford University, but he said they were right in saying there’s no guarantee a vaccine will work or be safe.
“Even if it is both of those things, there’s no guarantee it will be available in the next six months,” he said. “We should definitely be having a conversation about what we do if we can’t get a vaccine or it’s taking much longer than we hoped.”
So what would life look like in Australia if we don’t get a vaccine within the next couple of years?
Prof Esterman said life without a vaccine may not be as bad as it sounds. He said we can keep businesses open and even allow international travel from certain countries.
However, it all depends on whether we can get Victoria’s crisis is under control.
“Once we have that and NSW under control, we can basically eliminate COVID-19 from the whole of Australia by just keeping up the pressure,” he said.
“There’s no reason why we can’t, especially if we see Victoria’s case numbers plummeting in the next two weeks. We’ve already done it in other states and territories. Then if we just closed our borders, there wouldn’t be a problem.”
Prof Esterman said the government would have to get “a lot tougher on borders” instead of continually allowing exemptions.
“Closed borders should mean closed borders,” he said. “But once we eliminate, we can open up to other countries that have done the same thing, and there are a few.
“But we’d have to keep up with massive amounts of testing to ensure we don’t have cases sneaking through.”
Prof Esterman said social distancing and increased hygiene rules will be here to stay regardless of whether we have a vaccine or not, but there are other options the government could look at to keep the economy moving.
He suggested a fly-in emergency squad, much like the WHO has for disease outbreaks like ebola, could be used to quickly tackle an outbreak anywhere in Australia before it gets out of hand.
“Life without a vaccine would look very different,” Prof Esterman said. “We’re not going to achieve herd immunity, it is simply not going to happen.
“Only a tiny amount of our population has been infected and until we see up to 40 per cent of people recovered we’re never going to get herd immunity.
“So we need to be wary of these small bushfire-like outbreaks and making sure we have strong borders, which we can do.”
There is also the possibility of far more effective treatments for the disease being found, meaning that more lives can be saved even if a vaccine isn’t available.
But what does this all mean for the economy?
Matt Cowgill, a Senior Associate at the Grattan Institute, told news.com.au said it was inevitable that border restrictions will remain in place if there is no vaccine, causing major disruption to the tourism and higher education sectors.
International supply chains would also be hit, making it harder to trade goods across borders.
“We need to start thinking about how we can reallocate people into other industries,” he said.
If Australia cannot achieve a New Zealand-style success story, Mr Cowgill says it will be unlikely that hospitality will be back to anywhere near where it was before the pandemic.
“That’s such as massive employer of Australians, so it’s a very worrying world to contemplate,” he said.
He stressed that the most important thing from an economic point of view was getting the virus under control.
“Everything economically hinges on the health situation because we can’t have a functioning economy with widespread community transmission of this virus,” he said.
“We’ve seen in countries like Sweden, where they’ve had less mandated restrictions on activity, they’ve still had really substantial economic downturns.
“This is because of voluntary social distancing. Nobody wants to sit in crowded bars, restaurants or movie theatres when there is a substantial risk of contracting a deadly virus or passing it on.”