Coronavirus: US expert Anthony Fauci praises NZ's response to COVID-19

The United States' top infectious diseases expert has praised New Zealand's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in a chat with former Prime Minister Helen Clark.

The pair spoke via video call earlier this week, Stuff reports. Clark is part of a team carrying out a review of the World Health Organization's (WHO) much-criticised response to the pandemic, amid claims its initial response was slow and too soft on China, where the virus began. 

Dr Fauci, who has headed the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984 and been an adviser to every US President since Ronald Reagan, told Clark COVID-19 was different to every other virus outbreak he's had to deal with, such as HIV, Ebola, SARS and swine flu.

"He's never had to deal with a disease like this where you can be asymptomatic and highly infectious at the same time. This is something we haven't experienced," Clark told Stuff.

Helen Clark and Anthony Fauci.
Helen Clark and Anthony Fauci. Photo credit: Getty

Studies have suggested around half of all COVID-19 infections are caught from people who are asymptomatic or presymptomatic - spreading the virus without showing any symptoms themselves. Back in April the WHO said there was no need for "healthy" people to wear masks, but later reversed that advice as the evidence backing asymptomatic transmission became overwhelming. 

Dr Fauci praised New Zealand's response, Clark said, said it was perhaps easier for us than the US to keep it in check.

"He recognised New Zealand has had a successful response," Clark told Stuff. "I made the point that we had some advantages. We've got a big moat around us. We're a small country with a one-chamber parliament."

Having a female leader was also common among countries that have handled the virus well, Clark added, citing the Scandanivian countries (Sweden the obvious exception) and Germany. 

Though Dr Fauci has played a part in the US response and fronted many of the White House Coronavirus Task Force's briefings early in the pandemic, he was not in charge - answering to Vice-President Mike Pence and Dr Deborah Birx. Dr Fauci has in recent months clashed with US President Donald Trump, frequently having to debunk the latter's false claims about the pandemic, but has at times defended him. 

The US has had 212,000 deaths, adding between 500 and 1000 a day at present. New Zealand has had 25, making the US death 128 times worse when taking population into account.

More than 1 million people's deaths have been linked to the coronavirus this year, with experts saying that's likely an underestimate.