EXPLAINER

Coronavirus: border battles and pharmaceutical pauses

Queensland's border policy remained in the spotlight this week.
Queensland's border policy remained in the spotlight this week.

It's been another busy week in Australia's COVID-19 journey. This week brought an emotional war of words between Scott Morrison and Annastacia Palaszczuk. The highly-anticipated Oxford vaccine trials were forced to take a pause after a participant fell ill. And the Northern Territory is looking into revising greater Sydney's hotspot status.

What is happening with the Oxford trials?

Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca was forced to pause vaccine trials this week after a participant fell ill. The Oxford vaccine had been seen as a promising candidate, so it was anxiety-inducing to see the trials pause. Let's take a look at how trials can get off track after a participant falls ill.

Firstly, a person falling ill during a vaccine trial isn't necessarily caused by the vaccine. It could be unrelated. It could even be an underlying condition that the participant was not aware of before joining the study. Within clinical trials, there is a control group given placebos and another group that is given the vaccine.

If the participant is in the control group, obviously the new vaccine is not a factor. And ultimately with studies that include thousands of participants, statistically, it's probable a few individuals would have a major health event. However, it's crucial for studies to get to the bottom of it.

The detective work is followed up by Data Safety Monitoring Boards.

They are independent bodies of experts including biostaticians who look into the exact details of the participant's illness. If necessary they can examine what vaccine the participant took, even if it's a blind study. These investigations usually take a few days.

Clinical epidemiologist, professor Terry Nolan, told the ABC incidents like this rarely result in the trial being stopped.

"Nearly always, it'll be resumed, with a level of continued vigilance and awareness about this," Prof Nolan said.

This isn't the first time the Oxford trial has been paused. AstraZeneca reported in July the study was paused when a participant found out they had multiple sclerosis. After an investigation, it was deemed the individual's condition existed prior to the trial.

The pause is a reminder that the pursuit for a vaccine is not fast, and success in the pursuit of science relies on independent safety testing.

Queensland's border battle

The Queensland border has continued to be a sore spot between the federal and Queensland governments.

On Thursday Scott Morrison spoke on 4BC Radio, saying Queensland should allow Canberran Sarah Caisip into the state to attend the funeral of her father.

Ms Caisip was already in hotel quarantine in Queensland but her father's funeral fell within her 14-day stay.

"I rang the premier this morning and appealed to her to overrule the decision that would allow Sarah to go to the funeral today," Mr Morrison said on Thursday.

"It's not about politicians. It's not about elections. The only thing that matters today is that Sarah can be with her 11-year-old sister and her mother while they mourn the passing of their father and husband at Mt Gravatt today.

"This is the last opportunity to say farewell to her dad."

Mr Morrison emphasised the ACT had been free of COVID-19 for 60 days.

Ms Palaszczuk described the prime minister's actions as 'bullying' and reinforced border exemptions were not her decision.

"I will not be bullied nor will I be intimidated by the prime minister of this country who contacted me this morning and who I made [it] very clear to, the fact that it is not my decision," she said.

"To use the tragedy of this personal family is disgusting."

Ms Caisip eventually attended a private viewing but was unable to interact with her family and other mourners.

Queensland chief health officer Dr Jeanette Young reaffirmed funerals were risky events.

"Although I understand the enormous toll this takes on people who are coming to Queensland to attend a funeral of a loved one, they can't do that until they've been in quarantine for 14 days," Dr Young said.

"The last thing I would want to happen is to have an outbreak at a funeral and by definition, there are always older people who attend funerals."

Northern Territory revises hotspots

Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner announced the territory would aim to remove greater Sydney's COVID-19 hotspot status on October 9 if case numbers remained low.

"The testing being done and the links of almost all new cases, the known clusters, gives us a high degree of confidence that there are no unknown outbreaks occurring," he said in a press conference on Friday.

"If things change [and] the trend goes back up in Sydney, we will not hesitate to keep their hotspot status in place for as long as we need to."

As it stands, 32 local government areas in greater Sydney and the entire state of Victoria were classed as hotspots by the Northern Territory government.

Mr Gunner described Victoria's lower case numbers as encouraging, but said he expected the state would remain a hotspot for some time.

"Victoria will continue to be a hotspot for the purposes of travel to the Northern Territory," he said.

Victoria, while remaining Australia's most affected state, has had some quiet victories this week, with the 14-day daily case average dropping to 65.3 in metropolitan Melbourne and 4.7 in regional Victoria.

NT's chief health officer Hugh Heggie reminded territorians to stick to social distancing and to remain cautious if Sydneysiders were able to visit.

"Consider not being close to people you haven't seen for a good while. In other words, kissing and hugging," he said.

"Consider maybe not going and visiting vulnerable persons immediately."

This story Border battles flare in emotional week first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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