As of today, more people have died from the coronavirus in Italy than in China. There are fears Australia will follow the same path.
As of today, more people have died from the coronavirus in Italy than in China. There are fears Australia will follow the same path.

Australia's virus levels could mirror Italy's, experts fear

As of today, more people have died from coronavirus in Italy than in China - the original epicentre of the outbreak.

The Italian death toll rose by 427 yesterday, and now stands at 3405. At the same time China, with a total of 3245 deaths, reported its first day with no new locally transmitted cases.

One country has brought the outbreak under control. The other is still overwhelmed.

That unsettling news carries ominous implications for other nations currently struggling to contain the virus, many of which are still in the relatively early stages of the pandemic.

And it brings comparisons between Australia and Italy into even sharper focus.

Social media is awash with speculation that Australia is poised to follow a similar trajectory to Italy as the virus spreads in the coming weeks. Widely shared charts and graphs show the increasingly exponential growth rate in cases here. Experts are worried.

 

Medical staff assist a patient in the Intensive Care Unit of the Bergamo Papa Giovanni XXIII hospital in Italy. Picture: Papa Giovanni XXIII via AP.
Medical staff assist a patient in the Intensive Care Unit of the Bergamo Papa Giovanni XXIII hospital in Italy. Picture: Papa Giovanni XXIII via AP.

"We are where Italy was a few weeks ago, with a few hundred cases," Professor Raina MacIntyre, an infectious diseases expert from UNSW, told the Australian Academy of Science yesterday.

"We're on the upward trajectory of the epidemic curve, so it hasn't peaked yet in Australia, which means that things will get worse. And they'll get worse quickly before they start to get better.

"It depends, to some extent, on what measures we take and where we go from this point onwards with our response."

"We have a problem," Dr Dan Suan, an immunologist from the Garvan Institute, told 7.30 this week.

"The rate of infections is going up exponentially, and it's tracking similarly to countries in Europe, like Spain, Italy, France and the United States, who are ahead of us in the pandemic and are presently experiencing both a medical and economic disaster."

Perhaps the starkest warning came from Dr Greg Kelly, whose open letter urging the Government to take more drastic action has been signed by thousands of doctors.

"On current growth rates the 370 cases in Australia today will be 750 on Friday, 1500 on Tuesday next week, 3000 next Saturday, 6000 on the first of April and 12,000 by the fourth of April," Dr Kelly wrote on Tuesday.

"This is less than three weeks from now and puts us in a worse position than Italy is currently in."

So far his forecast rate of growth is being borne out by the data. On Friday morning, there were 709 confirmed cases in Australia. That should rise beyond 750 by the end of the day.

Dr Kelly went on to warn that Australia's demographics were closer to Italy's than China's. Italy has an unusually large elderly population, which has made it particularly vulnerable to the virus.

"The Italian authorities are reporting much higher rates of critical illness in their population than reported in Wuhan, China. This is likely related to an older population demographic with more pre-existing illnesses," Dr Kelly said.

"Australia is much more similar to Italy than Wuhan in this respect."

 

However, other experts feel the comparisons between Australia and Italy are overblown.

In an article published by The Conversation on Wednesday, infectious diseases physician Dr Trent Yarwood, UNSW Professor Ben Harris-Roxas and epidemiologist Kathryn Snow argued Australia was "unlikely" to follow Italy's experience.

"The lack of testing in Italy makes it hard to know if their outbreak of COVID-19 will be comparable to our own," they wrote.

"Australia introduced protective measures much earlier than Italy, including travel deferrals and quarantine for Australians exposed to the virus on cruise ships. It is vital for epidemic control to be based on facts about our own epidemic.

"There is no doubt the outbreak is going to stretch our health system to its limits - but we do not have good reason to fear it will be as bad as stories coming out of Italy."

The data does suggest the virus is spreading more gradually here than it did in Italy.

In the graphs below, we have started with the day each country passed 100 confirmed cases, and then looked at the rate of growth from that point onwards.

In Australia, that happened on March 10. Italy crossed the threshold on February 23, almost three weeks earlier.

In the 10 days since we hit 100 cases, the total has grown from 112 to 709 - roughly a 600 per cent increase. In the equivalent period, Italy went from 157 cases to 2502 - a spike of 1600 per cent.

Of course, Italy has a much larger population, so you would expect a higher raw number of cases there. But even when you compensate for population, the growth rate in Italy was significantly higher.

By day 10, four people out of every 100,000 in Italy were infected with the coronavirus. Here it's less than three people per 100,000.

Thankfully, Australia's death toll also remains relatively low. An 81-year-old woman died in hospital last night, bringing our total to seven - a fraction of Italy's 3405.

Whether it stays that way may depend on the success or failure of the Government's containment measures.

Yesterday Scott Morrison announced Australia would close its borders to all nonresidents, and Tasmania effectively shut itself off from the rest of the country.

Bars, cafes and restaurants are bracing for new restrictions on indoor gatherings.

You can read the latest updates from around the country here.

Originally published as How our outbreak compares to Italy's



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