Coronavirus can be beaten if New Zealanders follow intense isolation rules - infectious disease expert

An infectious disease specialist questions whether the four-week lockdown period will be long enough to rid coronavirus COVID-19 from New Zealand, but believes that will happen eventually if Kiwis work together.

From Wednesday night, New Zealand will be in lockdown for at least four weeks in an attempt to minimise the spread of the virus, which has infected 102 people in New Zealand and more than 360,000 worldwide. The lockdown means people must remain indoors, non-essential businesses will close, schools are shut, and travel is severely limited.

As the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday morning, alongside aggressive "attack" tactics, such as testing every suspected case and tracing their confirmed cases' close contacts, isolation and physical distancing is necessary in limiting the virus' spread. A paper out of the Imperial College of London, which is influencing nations' strategies to fight the virus, suggested these distancing measures must be intensive. 

Professor David Murdoch from the University of Otago urged Kiwis to work together.

"I don't know whether if four weeks is enough. But certainly, we can [overcome the virus] if we work hard together, so this is a timely and appropriate action given where we are," he told The AM Show.

"If we minimise the opportunity to transmit, it will certainly go away. This virus, the pandemic, needs to have ongoing transmission and contact between people for it to keep going, so without that, and minimising contact, it will eventually go. But this is absolutely the right thing to do, it's our main tool at the moment."

As Prof Murdoch explained, the virus is primarily spread through droplets in the air after someone sneezes or coughs, but can also be contracted if someone touches a surface where the virus is present and then touches an area like their mouth or eyes. 

He said information was limited at the moment about how long the virus can remain in the environment. However, if we can help New Zealanders with the virus get well, we should be able to get rid of the virus for good.

"It will go. If somebody is infected, there is a course and once you are over that infection and once the immune system kicks in and it goes, it's gone. We don't anticipate this is one of those viruses that remain around and can come back."

Some research, including the Imperial College paper, has suggested intense measures will be required for months, if not until a vaccine is developed. Prof Murdoch said this may be around 12-18 months away "if things go well". He said scientists and manufacturers will need to consider not only if a vaccine is effective, but also safe. There is then the need to ramp up production and sort out any regulatory issues. 

"We have got to do a lot of work before then to get on top of it. [But] the vaccine is likely to be important."

He echoed comments from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and health officials in calling for people to be kind to each other and consider their physical and mental health during isolation. He encouraged people to keep in contact with each other, even if that is over the phone. 

What we know about coronavirus

The World Health Organization (WHO) was first notified of cases of the virus SARS-CoV-2 (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2) in Wuhan, China on December 31. It was identified as a coronavirus on January 7 and can spread via human-to-human transmission. It causes the coronavirus COVID-19 illness.

"Common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death," the WHO says.

"Standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing."

There is currently no vaccine for the sickness.

How can I protect myself? 

  • avoid touching the mouth, nose and eyes with unwashed hands
  • washing your hands before eating
  • carrying a hand sanitiser at all times
  • being particularly mindful of touching your face after using public transport or going to the airport
  • carry tissues at all times to cover the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing (then dispose of it)
  • not eating shared or communal food
  • avoiding shaking hands, kissing cheeks
  • regularly cleaning and sanitise commonly used surfaces and items, such as phones and keys
  • avoiding close contact with people suffering from or showing symptoms of acute respiratory infection
  • seeking medical attention if you feel unwell.

An explainer on protecting yourself from coronavirus can be found here. Full information can also be found at

The Ministry of Health is reminding the public to get in touch with Healthline on 0800 358 5453 if they have symptoms or concerns.