As at mid-day on 12 August, Aotearoa New Zealand went to Alert Level 2 and Auckland City to Lockdown, Alert Level 3. This, the result of four infections discovered in a South Auckland industrial area.
The source of reinfection in South Auckland is yet to be determined. Options are limited to;
- Border staff at airports, ports, or quarantine facilities unwittingly picking up the virus
- An incorrect test result allowing a positive infection to leave a quarantine facility
- “Lurking” asymptomatic community transmission left over from previous months
- Returning flight crew member(s) acquiring the virus overseas
The third option seems unlikely. Where there is asymptomatic infection there are also symptomatic cases where people end up in hospital and ICU care. It seems unfeasible for one to occur, but not the other;
The other hypothesis doing the rounds is that maybe New Zealand never eliminated the virus and that it has been bubbling away undetected in the community for three months.
Professor [Epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws from the University of New South Wales] …thinks this is highly unlikely, and that at least some cases would have had symptoms and presented to medical authorities.
The last option is the most disturbing. It is no secret that returning airline flight crews from foreign destinations are not required to quarantine for fourteen days, unlike other Returnees passing through our borders;
The assumption that the new outbreak may have been the result of returning international flight crews is a possibility we should not quickly dismiss. To test this hypothesis, it is necessary to look at relevant facts.
Firstly, the genome of the covid19 virus in this latest outbreak does not match those who are infected and in current quarantine. As Prime Minister Ardern stated on 14 August,
“This suggests this is not a case of the virus being dormant or of a burning ember in our community. It appears to be new to New Zealand.”
So we can rule out the second option above, and part of the first option. There is also no indication of incursion through a port, or an Americold worker have any association with a port worker.
Next: according to Dr Ashley Bloomfield and the Ministry of Health, the genome of the virus indicates it may have originated from one of two countries;
“We are continuing with genome sequencing investigations. What we know so far is that there has been no exact link with a recent case in MIQ from the samples we have been able to genome sequence, however, genome sequencing of new cases resembles the genome pattern from the UK and Australia most closely.”
Next: The facility where covid19 was first discovered is Americold NZ Ltd, situated at Mt Wellington. It is also the site where most of the cases have centred.
Suggestions that transmission occurred via importation of chilled/frozen goods between Australian and New Zealand Americold facilities were unequivocally dismissed by the company’s managing director, Richard Winnall;
“Americold have investigated and we can completely rule out there is no transfer of product between these facilities in Australia or New Zealand,” Winnall told the Herald today.
We can completely rule out transmission through that speculation on freight. It’s just not possible because there is no freight or supply chain connecting those two properties [Mt Wellington and Melbourne].
In fact, for months and months [there has been no freight between Melbourne and Auckland]. I can’t tell you how long other than my Melbourne facility has confirmed they have no record of shipping to that Mt Wellington facility.”
Otago University professor and epidemiologist, Michael Baker, described the suggestion of viral contamination on imported goods as unlikely;
“…much less important than direct respiratory spread.”
University of Otago professor of infectious diseases, David Murdoch, said;
“I think on balance it’s probably less likely, but certainly worth exploring.”
Epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, Rachel Graham, pointed out;
“Even frozen, on a surface like that, you’ll see the virus desiccate and dry out, which renders it completely non-infectious.”
And executive director of the World Health Organisation’s Health Emergencies Program, Michael Ryan, stated;
“There is no evidence that food or the food chain is participating in transmission of this virus, and people should feel comfortable and feel safe,” Ryan said in a press briefing on Thursday, adding, “people should not fear food, or food packaging or processing, and the delivery of food.”
Next: Mr Winnall made this salient point;
“We believe that was just two employees that contracted Covid-19 from outside the workplace, that happened to be employees of ours.”
This is where things get… “interesting” (but hopefully not in a Gerry Brownlee kind-of-way).
Americold also has a second facility, at Manu Tapu Drive, only a few kilometres from Auckland Airport;
One of the Americold workers tested works at the Manu Tapu Drive facility. The results of this person’s test remains unknown as at publication of this story. A Ministry of Health media release dated 13 August stated;
Two of the AmeriCold sites, Mount Wellington and Auckland Airport, have been closed, and all staff from the Airport site have now been tested.
That was three days ago, and the MoH website has no update as to the results of testing of staff at the Auckland Airport Americold site.
The first recorded Americold worker’s (not at the facility near the Airport) was on 31 July.
Working backward from 31 July, the first worker would have been infected roughly fourteen to sixteen days prior to presenting with symptoms. That takes into account approximately 12 to 14 days to incubate; one day presenting; and another day to test and determine a positive result.
The MoH website for covid cases yields the following result for Returnees flying home from Australia;
Recall that this strain of virus most likely emanated from UK or Australia.
Whilst the evidence above should be regarded as circumstantial, the possibility that an airline flight crew returning to Aotearoa New Zealand carried the covid19 virus and transmitted infection to an Americold staff-member should not be dismissed out of hand.
Equally alarming, is that flights from Australia and elsewhere continue to arrive to our country;
None of the flight crew staff are quarantined.
Meanwhile, the re-emergence of covid19 outside our quarantine facilities should squash further irrational proposals that we re-open our borders to others apart from returning New Zealanders;
Key’s assertion that;
“We don’t really have a health crisis in New Zealand because we don’t have community transmission; we have a financial crisis that is coming, not a health crisis.”
– defies common sense and should be discarded as the misguided ‘reckons’ of a man with unbalanced priorities. People like Key, David Seymour, et al, should be regarded with derision if we value human life above money.
Otago Daily Times: Quarantine exemptions granted to small number
Ministry of Health: 14 new cases of COVID-19 – Media release 13 August 2020
Ministry of Health: Covid-19 – current cases details – 1:00 pm, 16 August 2020
Otago Daily Times: Bluff groom’s father one of Covid-19 deaths
Auckland Airport: Arrivals
Previous related blogposts
Acknowledgement: Sharon Murdoch
This blogpost will be re-published in five days on “Frankly Speaking“. Reader’s comments may be left here (The Daily Blog) or there (Frankly Speaking).
= fs =