Coronavirus: Fiji fears 'COVID tsunami' after 'double mutant' variant outbreak

An expert in the spread of infectious diseases says it's likely Fiji has acted quickly enough to stamp out an Indian-style explosion of COVID-19 cases.

But it's not out of the woods yet, with the island nation's health chief James Fong warning a "single misstep will bring about the same COVID tsunami that our friends in India, Brazil, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States are enduring".

The capital Suva entered a two-week lockdown on Monday after transmission of the 'double mutant' variant, first found in India, was detected in the community. There have been 24 community cases found in the outbreak, nearly a quarter of Fiji's total cases since the pandemic began.

Fiji has close cultural ties with India, much of the population having family links to the south Asian nation in the grips of the world's most intense COVID-19 outbreak to date. 

"We don't know whether the variant that's been seen in India... is more transmissible or more deadly," said University of Auckland disease modeller Shaun Hendy. "It does have some of the genetic changes in common with the variants that have been seen to be more deadly in other parts of the world." 

While India's official numbers say about 3000 a day are dying and 300,000 are being infected, the true figure is likely to be much higher. New modelling by experts at the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation suggests only around 2 or 3 percent of cases are being detected - equivalent to 14 million people being infected every day. 

By August, the model predicts 1 million Indians will have lost their lives to the virus - and that's assuming the vaccine rollout ramps up.

"It's got to the stage that we always said don't let it get to - where your health system is overwhelmed," World Health Organization spokesperson Margaret Harris told The AM Show on Wednesday. "They have a good health system, they've got some of the most brilliant doctors in the world, they've got great technology - it shows it can happen anywhere."

Fiji has a hotel-based managed isolation quarantine system like New Zealand. Dr Hendy said the nation might want to look at better ways of managing arrivals from high-risk countries - New Zealand has blocked all flights from India for the past two weeks, for example. 

That ban is set to lift on Wednesday, replaced by a system that places people arriving from high-risk countries into the same hotel, reducing their chances of infecting someone arriving from a low-risk nation.

"I do think we want to carefully consider whether we should reopen, even though it would just be restricted to citizens," said Dr Hendy. "I still think there's a lot of risks for people travelling in and out of India right now and we should be carefully considering that." 

Dr Hendy said it's likely more community cases in Fiji will be found despite the lockdown because it can take a week or two to find all those already infected.

"Fiji needs to respond quickly and effectively to his outbreak. We've certainly seen India is struggling, it let the outbreak get out of control before acting. 

Hopefully, Fiji will not go down that path... I don't think Fijians should be overly concerned right now, but should certainly be aware of the possibility of community spread and be taking basic precautions." 

As for India, Dr Harris said there is a "beacon of hope". 

"The trajectory of their pandemic right now is straight up. But... it also can come straight down," she said, if authorities take action.

"This virus can be turned around very quickly if you do those public health social measures seriously and not just rely on the vaccine. The vaccines will in the long-term help, but it takes a long time."