COVID-19 cases are growing at a faster rate in Australia than any other country in the region amid deepening concerns about the rapid spread of the virus.
World Health Organisation figures show that for the past five days the number of new cases of the infection in Australia has been greater than any other country in the Western Pacific region, which includes China, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.
According to the latest WHO data, Australia confirmed 313 new cases on Tuesday, eclipsing a 212 increase in Malaysia, an additional 146 in China and an extra 82 in the Philippines.
The results came as Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy said the government was "very worried about the rate of rise" in the number of cases in recent days.
"It is a very, very steep growth and it's very concerning," Professor Murphy said, though he added that a "significant proportion" involved people returning from overseas or those in close contact with them, rather than community transmission.
While the rate of increase in infection is worrying, health experts said the overall situation was not as bad as the headline figures suggest.
Associate professor Adam Kamradt-Scott, an infectious diseases expert at Sydney University's Centre for International Security Studies, said the data showed that although detected new cases are rising, the number of people dying or requiring intensive treatment remained low.
As of early Wednesday, Australia had just eight recorded deaths from COVID-19 infection.
This is far fewer than other countries in the region. In China, 3283 have so far died from the disease, as have 120 in South Korea, 42 in Japan, 33 in the Philippines and 14 in Malaysia. Of all regional countries that have recorded fatalities from the outbreak, only Singapore (two deaths) has fewer than Australia.
Associate professor Kamradt-Scott said that although it was appropriate to take guidance from other nations in how they were responding to the pandemic, it was important to recognise that every country was different.
He said multiple factors were involved in how the outbreak in each country developed. For instance, Italy has high rates of smoking compared with Australia and it was more common for several generations to live together.
Associate professor Kamradt-Scott warned that cases in China could surge as the lockdown of Hubei province eased because many other parts of the country were yet to be fully exposed to the virus.
Grattan Institute health program director Stephen Duckett said the number of confirmed cases was also influenced by the extent of testing.
While the rate of testing has been very high in South Korea, it is comparatively high in Australia while in other countries in the region including Japan, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam it is far lower.
More than 162,000 tests have been carried out in Australia. By comparison, as at Monday Japan had tested just 17,000 people.
Dr Duckett said the number of confirmed cases in Australia was like to surge in coming days following a change in testing criteria.
Initially tests were limited to people arriving from overseas and those with close contact to confirmed cases. But late last week the ACT and New South Wales expanded their criteria to include health workers with respiratory symptoms and those with acute respiratory illness or fever and reported links to settings where COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred.
Dr Duckett warned that increased testing was likely to reveal a higher number of infections.
"I am quite sure we have significant community spread that has not been reported because there has not been the testing," he said. "It is quite clear that the number infected is quite a deal higher than the number reported."
Associate Professor Kamradt-Scott said it would take at least 14 days to assess whether the business closures and social distancing measures undertaken in recent days were being effective in bringing down the rate of increase in infections.
But Dr Duckett was skeptical about how effective they might be because "we are not taking it seriously yet, so we are probably not going to see a turn down yet".
Nonetheless, he saw promising signs in the trend of cases in Italy, where the number of new infections has declined in the past two days, suggesting the severe lockdown measures imposed by the Italian government were working.
Dr Duckett said he expected Australian authorities would have to consider moving to more serious measures in coming days.
- For information on COVID-19, please go to the federal Health Department's website.
- You can also call the Coronavirus Health Information Line on 1800 020 080
- If you have serious symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, call Triple Zero (000)
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