Interview with Dr Sonya Bennett, Deputy Chief Medical Officer, on Sky News Live, first edition November 30, 2021


Date published:

November 30, 2021

Public:

General public

PIERRE STEFANOVIC:

Well, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Sonya Bennett is joining us live now. Doctor, good to see you. Thank you for your time this morning. We are at five cases at the moment. Are there others, to your knowledge?

SONYA BENNETT:

Oh, hello, Peter. No, my information is that we have these five cases, as reported yesterday. We can expect to see more. We have good border surveillance with the measures introduced, and therefore, we may well see more cases as we continue to monitor and test people. But five for the moment, all isolated, which is good and certainly no case that we know in community.

PIERRE STEFANOVIC:

Why press the pause button when migrants and international students arrive, when they would be doubly vaccinated on their way to a country with a very high vaccination rate?

SONYA BENNETT:

Well, it’s a break, as you say, it’s a two week break. What we don’t know, we just don’t know enough about this virus. It therefore appears to be highly transmissible and infectious, and this is demonstrated by the fact that it is spreading in a number of countries around the world. So not just in southern Africa. We are now seeing community transmission in countries like Portugal, where initially we were only seeing cases in travelers to South Africa. And that’s not unexpected, and we can expect to see the same here in Australia over time.

So the break is really to buy some time to better understand this virus, to really clarify how effective vaccines are against the virus. As you say we have high coverage in Australia, which is fantastic. But we don’t know enough yet. So, over the next two weeks it will be essential to understand some of these aspects.

PIERRE STEFANOVIC:

Highly transmissible but softer than previous variants – variants. Is that a word you would use to describe the new variant?

SONYA BENNETT:

He is. From what we know, this certainly appears to be the case. I mean, including our five cases, they all had very mild symptoms, if any. But, again, we just don’t know enough. There are not yet many reported cases. You know, ironically, we have to see more cases to better understand the virus. But all indications show that, especially in vaccinated people, the disease appears to be mild. And we hope that is what will happen over the next two weeks. But hope is not a strategy.

PIERRE STEFANOVIC:

Sure.

SONYA BENNETT:

So this is really the reason for the pause and caution until we have a better understanding of the virus.

PIERRE STEFANOVIC:

Will it be two weeks or do you think it can be extended?

SONYA BENNETT:

So at this point the plan is two weeks. So the reopening continues, it’s a two week break. As we learn more about the virus, obviously if the first signs change in any way we will need to heed that with all the information and provide advice to the government. But at this point it’s two weeks. And- and it’s …

PIERRE STEFANOVIC:

[Talks over] Sure.

SONYA BENNETT:

… As much as we can say at the moment.

PIERRE STEFANOVIC:

OK. How long do you think it takes you to get all the data you need, all the information you need, to be able to make a solid call on Omicron?

SONYA BENNETT:

Well, it’s going to be over two weeks, so it’s taking a while, we’ll – we’ll have an early indication of how fast it’s spreading within two weeks, we’ll have an early indication of the severity of the disease. Hopefully we will have some indication of the difference between this in vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Through some lab studies, we’ll likely understand how the vaccine still works. The antibodies produced by the vaccine work against this virus by neutralizing it, which again, without being confirmatory evidence, is somewhat of an indication of the effectiveness of the vaccines.

We therefore hope to have enough information to inform decisions. We won’t get really solid information for several weeks on this. But we’ll continue to monitor information as it comes out and inform our decisions as it unfolds.

PIERRE STEFANOVIC:

So if you don’t have all the information in the next two weeks, then that initial two-week hiatus may well need to be extended?

SONYA BENNETT:

Look, I can’t say one way or the other. All I can say is that we will continue to monitor the news. As I said, ironically, the more cases we see around the world, the more information we will have. Now, nobody necessarily wants that, but it’s … we’ve been here before. So very early last year we made decisions based on uncertainty and Australia, really, the outcome that we had with the pandemic was – we have been – a very good outcome and we are in a good position to. manage this new Omicron Variant in the same way.

PIERRE STEFANOVIC:

Okay, doctor, just a quick closing. Is there a reason state prime ministers keep their borders closed or close them if they just opened them, given what you know so far?

SONYA BENNETT:

So it will be the business of states and territories, and as you know, the National Cabinet is meeting this afternoon.

PIERRE STEFANOVIC:

Yes.

SONYA BENNETT:

They will discuss the reopening plan as we go. Once again, it is too early to have any information at this time. The measures at the international border will really slow the entry of this virus into Australia and as we learn more information over the next two weeks. So it’s really one day at a time.

PIERRE STEFANOVIC:

Dr Sonya Bennett, thank you for your time. Appreciate it. We will get back to you soon.

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