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99% of virus linked to returned travellers

1 month ago 18

More than 99 per cent of today’s COVID-19 cases in Victoria stem from returned travellers in hotel quarantine, an inquiry has heard, with the new cases emerging after the early outbreak of the virus had effectively died out in the state.

Professor Ben Howden from the Doherty Institute presented data on the transmission networks in Victoria to the Melbourne hotel quarantine inquiry on Monday afternoon.

He is an expert in genomic sequencing, which allows for clusters to be identified by looking at the genetic code of virus samples.

Mutations in the code “essentially act as a passport stamp” allowing scientists to trace back where the virus came from, Howden said.

His data shows early clusters, with numerous overseas infection points, had essentially disappeared from Victoria by early May.

Another transmission network — meaning a cluster and subclusters — consisted of locally acquired cases and died out in June.

This means more than 99 per cent of cases in the current outbreak — “essentially all current cases, bar a few” — are from new transmission networks that emerged in mid-May, Prof Howden said.

He said he was “very confident” with the results, acknowledging he and his colleagues had not sequenced all cases.

Howden said he and colleagues had been able to sequence 46 per cent of Victorian cases as of July 23.


Earlier on Monday, a lawyer representing one of the security firms embroiled in controversy around alleged breaches of hotel quarantine says Melbourne’s inquiry will sort fact from fiction around the “rumour and innuendo” that has surrounded the program.

“To be blunt, what I am referring to is rumour and innuendo about alleged sexual activity between security guards and guests,” said Arthur Moses SC on the first day of the inquiry.

The barrister is appearing for Unified Security, a company contracted to guard guests at some quarantine hotels.

On Monday he presented the inquiry with advice given to security guards at the hotels that suggested personal protective equipment was not necessary in a number of situations, including when in the hotel lobby, on the quarantine floor, or at the doorway of a quarantine room.

The advice was “inappropriate”, said infectious diseases expert and Melbourne University Professor Lindsay Grayson.

Mr Moses put a number of scenarios to Mr Grayson to glean whether guards could have contracted the virus from necessary interactions with guests rather than “inappropriate” ones.

Mr Grayson said that if appropriate PPE was worn it would drastically reduce the risk of transmission in all cases.


Mr Grayson said a question about masks in a training module security guards had to complete before working at the quarantine hotels was “completely inaccurate” for workers in contact with COVID-19.

According to a July version of the module, people were required to answer “False” to the statement “Everyone should be wearing a mask to prevent COVID-19”.

This was the correct health information for the public at that time, Mr Grayson said, but “completely inaccurate” for frontline health workers or quarantine staff, who are regularly in contact with either confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients.

It has since become mandatory for Victorians to wear a mask or face covering when outside of their home.

“It is hard to know who their target audience is,” Mr Grayson said, adding the training module was “confusing” because the majority of it appeared to be directed at the public, not somebody who would be in direct contact with or managing patients with COVID-19.

The “crucial section” about PPE offered no information other than to seek advice from your local authorities, he said.


Mr Grayson said frontline coronavirus workers “need to be a little scared” as he stressed how difficult and vital it is to handle PPE such as masks and gowns correctly.

He told the inquiry that it was “very difficult” to train people properly in handling PPE.

“What we call donning and doffing, putting on and taking off PPE, the sequence of this is important,” he said. “It’s actually quite a complicated thing even as an infected diseases physician to remember how to do it accurately.”

People in regular close contact with the virus such as those working in coronavirus wards should be “a little scared”.

“All of them need to be a little scared,” he said. “If they’re not scared and not paying attention to this, problems can arise.”

The inquiry will consider whether staff involved with hotel quarantine had adequate access to and training in PPE and other infection control measures.


Mr Grayson said that despite extensive pandemic planning Australia never envisaged a large scale hotel quarantine program like the current one.

He told the inquiry that published pandemic plans, on either a state or national level, addressed programs like the hotel quarantine currently running in cities across Australia.

The plans also didn’t address scale, he said.

“It’s always referred to without there being a clear outline of what would happen if there was a quarantine of 10 people versus 10,000 people.”


Tony Neal QC said in his opening remarks the confused and complicated structure of the program, which was initially set up in 48 hours, left agencies unclear on who was actually running the show.

The evidence would show there were “multiple and potential overlapping” roles between various agencies responsible for delivering the quarantine system, he said.

It would raise questions about the clarity of the roles of those agencies, he said.

The inquiry will seek to answers questions like who was actually running and accountable for the program, as well as what would have made it work better, whether staff had appropriate access to personal protective equipment, and how the “huge demand” of a 14-day, 24/7 quarantine affected the people who were detained and those guarding them.


Government ministers will be among the many witnesses to front an inquiry into Melbourne’s hotel quarantine system.

Neal said ministers, senior public servants, people in quarantine and hotel, security and medical staff would be among those who front up to answer questions.

He did not name any ministers but several departments are appearing before the inquiry, including Health and Human Services, Justice and Community Safety, Premier and Cabinet, and Jobs, Precincts and Regions.

Premier Daniel Andrews said on Tuesday that he has not been called to appear but if he is, he will be there.


The inquiry into Melbourne’s hotel quarantine inquiry has officially kicked off, with Counsel Assisting Tony Neal QC confirming the evidence over the next two days will reveal more about how the current outbreak can be traced back to overseas travellers quarantined in hotels.

Unified Security, one of the companies contracted by the Victorian government to guard quarantined guests, has hired a lawyer to appear before the inquiry.

Rydges and Melbourne Hotel Group are also legally represented along with a number of government departments.

The hotel quarantine system did not include a frontline role for the Australian Defence Force nor Victoria Police, instead deciding to engage private security firms to guard the hotel occupants, Neal said.

“Why that was so is an issue for the inquiry,” said counsel assisting Tony Neal.


Expert evidence at Melbourne’s hotel quarantine inquiry on Monday is expected to reveal more about how the bungled scheme led to the state’s coronavirus disaster.

Professor Lindsay Grayson from Austin Health and Melbourne University, and professor Ben Howden from the Doherty Institute are both slated to give evidence on Monday morning when the inquiry begins.

Epidemiologist Dr Charles Alpren from the Victorian Department of Health will appear on Tuesday.

The experts will testify about the nature of COVID-19, infection control, epidemiology, contact tracing and genomic testing.

Mr Howden is the director of the Microbiological Diagnostic Unit Public Health Laboratory at the Doherty Institute.

The institute’s research has previously been cited by Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton, who said it suggested a large proportion or perhaps even all of Victoria’s current COVID-19 cases stemmed from hotel quarantine.

Mr Grayson is the director of infectious diseases and microbiology at Austin Health and a professor of infectious diseases at Melbourne University.

In July he penned a scathing op-ed for The Age about the Victorian department of health, labelling it “one of the worst-funded and dysfunctionally organised in the nation”.

More to come.

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