COVID-19: 'High chance' coronavirus will arrive in New Zealand - expert

There's a "high chance" New Zealand won't avoid the coronavirus outbreak, an infectious diseases specialist says.

And other medical experts fear it'll arrive at the height of the seasonal influenza "winter surge", putting extra pressure on the health system.

So far there have been about 75,000 cases of COVID-19 and 2122 deaths, and another 12,000 are currently listed as critical by Chinese authorities. Cases have been reported across the world, with wider outbreaks emerging in neighbouring Japan and South Korea.

Four Kiwis have tested positive for the highly infectious illness so far, all on board cruise ship the Diamond Princess, quarantined off the coast of Japan. But it's yet to be detected on our shores.

"We're all hoping the virus won't come here and so far we've had no cases in the country, but I think the chances are very high we'll get the virus at some stage," University of Otago researcher David Murdoch told The AM Show on Friday.

"We're at a stage where we need to prepare for it. Of course we hope it doesn't happen, but we need to prepare for it."

Dr Murdoch said every winter hospitals prepare for the seasonal influenza influx, which kills about 400 people a year, but COVID-19's higher death rate - killing 2 percent of all who contract it - could overwhelm the system.

David Murdoch.
David Murdoch. Photo credit: The AM Show

A new report from the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research backs that up, saying travel bans have been ineffective at halting past viral outbreaks.

As an isolated island nation they could work in theory, the report notes, but the rules we've implemented are weak.

"Travel restrictions in the COVID-19 context, were imposed weeks after the outbreak in China, allowing cases to have already arrived. Furthermore, our travel restrictions have been selective: They don't apply to New Zealand residents and citizens, thousands of which have arrived from China in recent weeks."

Co-author health economist Sarah Hogan told RNZ the efforts to prevent COVID-19 reaching New Zealand could have a perverse outcome.

"Delaying the virus' arrival in New Zealand now could mean that it arrives in New Zealand during our flu season. This would put extra strain on our health sector's limited resources at the worst possible time of year."

Sarah Dalton, executive director of the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists, told RNZ it wasn't unusual for hospitals to be at "over 100 percent occupancy" now.

"If we get flu at the same time as COVID-19, that seems like too many things."

Dr Murdoch said there was a possibility the virus was already here.

"There's always a chance. There's a good chance we would pick it up... but there's absolutely no way we can be completely sure about that."

The Ministry of Health says it is reviewing its border measures every 48 hours.

Protecting the Pacific

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in December said it was "highly likely" New Zealand was the source of Samoa's recent measles outbreak, which left at least 83 dead.

"New Zealand is a key gateway to many Pacific countries, so we do have a responsibility," said Dr Murdoch.

"In fact, protecting us will hopefully protect those countries, many of which have health systems that may not be as able to cope with a pandemic as we are. There is a bit of a history of viral diseases being transferred from New Zealand to the Pacific Islands, so it is a cause of concern."

Samoa caused outrage last week when it refused entry to eight of its own citizens who'd travelled through Singapore, on Samoa's blacklist. They ended up being quarantined in a hotel in Fiji. Experts called it a violation of international law. 

The Pacific island nation, wary after the measles tragedy, has also been cancelling visits by cruise ships that fail to fulfil quarantine requirements and undergo health inspections before arrival.