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Dr Ian Norton

‘Looking to the future, we should be very cautious’: Why a vaccine will not end uncertainty for businesses

As COVID-19 vaccines roll out across the world, businesses are experiencing a rare moment of optimism.

However questions about the effectiveness of the vaccine and how long it will take to distribute mean that businesses are still kept in limbo.

Dr Ian Norton, a specialist emergency physician who headed the WHO Emergency Medical Team and also founded the social enterprise Respond Global, warns that businesses will face at least another year of pandemic-induced uncertainty.

“Looking to the future, we should be very cautious. I am not bullish about vaccines,” said Dr Norton.

“Firstly, we should be cautious about the 90 per cent efficacy rates. This is highly unusual for any vaccine, so all my alarm bells are ringing. I was also shocked to see the Pfizer CEO sell $US5.6 million in shares after announcing the efficacy rate.

“It’s far too early to make a long term call on efficacy. The current numbers are small numbers of people in large cohorts – these rates are just what everyone wants to hear.

“Secondly, when it comes to vaccines, we won’t see a roll out until March and it won’t end for at least 6-9 months. I see the same risks staying until the end of 2021. 

“People wish it was disappearing. But we’ll have risks of outbreaks until the whole population is vaccinated. And it’s not just the 25 million people in Australia, it’s also about trading partners and when we can relax quarantine and send staff overseas – and this won’t happen until the rest of the world is equally vaccinated.”

Responding to demand globally 

In January 2020 Dr Norton founded Respond Global, which guides businesses and governments on their emergency response to outbreaks.

“It is set up to do three major things: help with emergency preparedness and planning, look at operation centres, and write plans for businesses and governments. We look at interactive training for both business personnel and also training for national medical teams.”

Despite being launched at the onset of a global pandemic, Respond Global had been in the works for a long time. 

“I planned this last year,” said Dr Norton.

“I saw that the multilateral agency WHO wasn’t keeping up with demand. NGOs had constraints because they rely on donor funding, which was shrinking. At the same time, government to government support exists but it is finite.”

An example of how Respond Global has been helping businesses is through contact tracing. 

“In Victoria, businesses needed to do their own contact tracing. This was a real shock for business owners because they had to become experts in contact tracing. 

“They thought public health departments would help them.

“Businesses have had to carry a lot of the shortfall in government testing and they were unaware that they would have to do that.”

Respond Global has been able to fill the gap between government resources and the specialised response plan that businesses need as we continue to experience small outbreaks. 

“You don’t get enough from just the state and territory government websites. You need an organisation to come in especially if you are in a higher risk industry.

“If you are, you’re much more likely to keep on trading all the way through isolated outbreaks.

“Little flare ups are a danger for your business and you must keep that latent capacity to escalate a response to go to amber and eventually to red in your business.”

Misconceptions about the coronavirus 

Dr Norton also cautions businesses of the changing scientific knowledge and hidden misconceptions surrounding the virus. 

“For a while, WHO said that COVID-19 is not transmitted by food packaging. 

“But WHO said that because they didn’t want to strike up panic. So they didn’t get the whole message across. 

“The risk from touching food packaging and putting it in your mouth and getting infected is low.

“But frozen food is different. Frozen viruses are perfectly effective. If we lose control of that cold chain, the virus is still alive.

“If a sick person in Brazil were to cough onto a package of frozen beef, that virus is absolutely alive and well after defrosting.”

Thus Respond Global helps businesses make well-informed business decisions by stripping away marketing myths and poor planning.

“Some businesses are spending 2 to 3 million on COVID-19 products that they don’t need. We protect businesses from other businesses leveraging the fear of COVID-19.

“We tell you the science, what you need to spend money on and what you don’t.”

A tool that Respond Global believes would revolutionise emergency responses in Australia is antigen testing. 

Whilst the current PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing in Australia involves a laboratory, specialist equipment and a minimum 24 hour wait, antigen tests can produce a result within 10 minutes.

Antigen tests don’t have the near 100 per cent sensitivity of current PCR testing, however Dr Norton believes that its 80-90 per cent efficacy within 10 minutes will provide enormous benefits to at risk industries. 

“If you’re in manufacturing or travel, you can access a test and get a result in 10 mins and act on that.”

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Ann Wen

Ann Wen

Ann is a journalist at Dynamic Business.

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