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  •   Home > News > Politics

    Did funding cuts by the Abbott government hamper the CSIRO's pandemic preparedness?

    Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese says the Coalition Government's first budget in 2014 had cut $110 million from science funding and "hollowed out" the nation's lead scientific agency, the CSIRO, one of the groups that Australia was "now counting on" to


    CoronaCheck is RMIT ABC Fact Check's regular email newsletter dedicated to fighting the misinformation infodemic surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

    You can read the latest edition below, and subscribe to have the next newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

    CoronaCheck #29

    It's been a bad week for Victoria, which has reported record numbers of COVID-19 infections. The surge has seen Melbourne and Mitchell Shire thrust back into lockdown and the border with NSW closed for the first time in a century. In today's edition, we've gone back in time to see what border closure looked like 100 years ago during the Spanish Flu pandemic.

    We've also examined whether budget cuts by the Abbott government hurt the CSIRO's readiness to deal with major disease and compare Australia's coronavirus death rates to those of other countries.

    In this edition

    Has the CSIRO's pandemic preparedness been hampered by funding cuts?

    As efforts to develop a coronavirus vaccine continue, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has used a National Press Club address to call for better pandemic preparedness.

    Mr Albanese said the Coalition Government's first budget had cut $110 million from science funding and "hollowed out" the nation's lead scientific agency, the CSIRO, one of the groups that Australia was "now counting on" to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.

    Certainly, the CSIRO has been on the frontline of Australia's response to the coronavirus.

    Its recent work includes a collaboration with the University of Queensland to develop a vaccine based on so-called "molecular clamp" technology. The agency is also conducting pre-clinical trials for two separate vaccines.

    However, Dr Trevor Drew recently told the ABC's Four Corners program that cuts in 2014 had "impacted on the research capability" of the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, the CSIRO's high-containment facility for studying deadly viruses, of which he was director.

    Fact Check took a look at the 2014-15 budget papers, which show the newly-elected Abbott government had earmarked $111.4 million in "reduced funding" for the CSIRO over the four years from 2014-15. The CSIRO's annualreports confirm the agency lost $60 million in nominal government revenue in the first two budget years alone.

    Notably, some job losses were foreshadowed the year before the Coalition's budget. As Fact Check wrote in 2013, the CSIRO had already announced a recruitment freeze due to falling non-government revenue.

    In the year after the 2014-15 budget, the agency shed 11 per cent of its research staff and 12 per cent of its total workforce, not counting contractors. Some jobs have since returned but, five years on, there remained 215 fewer research staff than before the Coalition took office.

    But while Mr Albanese linked the funding cuts to the agency's role in developing a coronavirus vaccine, a CSIRO spokesman told Fact Check there had been just two redundancies in "areas related to vaccine development and pandemic preparedness".

    "As part of the creation of our new strategy in 2015, CSIRO brought together experts from a range of backgrounds to build a 'one health' model that could respond to a new disease threat in multiple ways, from vaccine development and medical supply production to data modelling and environmental science," the spokesman added.

    "As a result, our overall capability in pandemic preparedness has expanded, including an increase in research staff working on human diseases."

    The current pandemic has also led the Morrison Government to put aside $222 million to upgrade the CSIRO's ageing containment facility and a further $66 million for future pandemic planning and research to develop a vaccine and treatments for COVID-19.

    Border closures mirror those of 100 years ago

    News outlets have declared that this week's decision to close the Victoria-NSW border was the first such move in 100 years.

    Back in April, when state borders were first being shut, RMIT ABC Fact Check examined a claim made by former foreign minister Alexander Downer that the closures were "unconstitutional", digging up some interesting history along the way.

    According to medical historian Peter Hobbins, of the University of Sydney, border closures enacted during the Spanish Flu outbreak in 1918-1919 prompted considerable debate and dissension.

    In November 1918, the Commonwealth and states had agreed that borders would only be closed after joint consultation. That agreement broke down almost immediately after Victorians infected with the flu arrived in NSW in late January 1919.

    This forced the Victorian government to admit that the state had flu cases, leading NSW to unilaterally close the border.

    A series of other border closures followed, "at which point the Commonwealth threw up their hands and left the states to squabble among themselves", Dr Hobbins said.

    Conditions for people stuck on either side of the border looks to be better this time around: Dr Hobbins detailed to Fact Check the Spanish flu era practice of keeping people wishing to cross the NSW/Victoria border in quarantine camps (pictured), usually consisting of tents in the local showground, for up to seven days to confirm they were free of the flu.

    "I believe that they were expected to pay back three shillings per day to the state government for the privilege of being quarantined, though few did and even fewer were pursued for their arrears."

    The frightening 'could-have-been' COVID-19 scenarios for Australia

    COVID-19 is clearly impacting countries to varying degrees. Differences in preparedness, population density and in the quality of national healthcare systems, as well as in the nature of government responses to the pandemic, have led to marked differences in outcomes.

    So stark is the contrast that, had Australia's coronavirus path tracked similarly to Belgium's, the nation would have recorded more than 21,000 deaths — more than 200 times its current toll of 104.

    Had infections and fatalities been as extensive as in the UK, the number of Australians succumbing to the virus might have already reached 16,000.

    And had infections reached the same number as those of Sweden, which implemented less-stringent lockdown rules that kept businesses open and allowed people to continue socialising at cafes and pubs — then the outcome might have been similarly dire: as many as 13,000 Australian deaths to date.

    The figures are extrapolations based on data that tracks the number of coronavirus deaths per million of population.

    In the case of Belgium, its 9,747 reported coronavirus deaths (as of July 9) are the equivalent of 853 for every one million Belgians.

    For the UK, with more than 66 million people, the rate is currently 657 per million; for Sweden, it's 523. This compares with Australia's rate of less than 5.

    Experts caution that variables in the way countries compile their statistics and in their definitions, as well as variations in demographics and cultural norms, make for inexact comparisons.

    Nevertheless, by any measure, Australia's record in fighting the coronavirus stacks up well, notwithstanding anxieties surrounding Victoria's current burst of infections.

    "When you can take into account deaths per million and case fatalities, a country like Australia has had a very low rate for both," says Catherine Bennett, chair of epidemiology at Deakin University and a member of a team reviewing Australian and international COVID-19 mortality data.

    Why we need to be wary of the data

    While inexact, the deaths per million statistic allows for greater perspective. While the top places in a table listing the number of COVID-19 deaths could reasonably be expected to be filled by countries with the biggest populations, deaths per million gives a clearer snapshot of how severely the coronavirus is impacting different jurisdictions.

    For example, the US tops the global death count with around 130,000 fatalities, with Brazil having swiftly climbed to second place (60,000).

    But, as bleak as those figures are, they translate to 388 and 284 deaths per million of population respectively, ranking both countries behind Belgium, the UK, Spain, Italy, Sweden and France.

    The caveats? For a start, Belgium's figures include suspected — as well as confirmed — coronavirus deaths in care homes, which is likely inflating the country's toll.

    Also, figures are subject to sudden change as countries reassess definitions and revise their data, as was the case in China, where authorities revised upwards by 50 per cent coronavirus totals for the city of Wuhan.

    "They realised that their case definition was so stringent, their data shifted massively," noted Professor Bennett.

    Likewise, New York City; it added more than 3,700 deaths to its COVID-19 toll in one stroke after new guidance from US health authorities recommended taking into account "probable" and "presumed" coronavirus deaths even in the absence of testing.

    Figures for some countries are also likely unreliable due to poor accounting or because, with healthcare systems overwhelmed, untold numbers of people have been left to die at home.

    While the Swedish Government shared the global objective of flattening the coronavirus curve, debate continues over the merits of its approach. Its 5333 deaths to date (523 per million people) far exceed the per capita tolls of neighbouring Denmark (104 deaths per million), Finland (59) and Norway (47).

    A quick PSA

    Claims circulating on social media that police have issued a bulletin about door-knocking thieves posing as mask providers is false, according to fact checkers at AFP Australia, Full Fact and Reuters in the UK, and PolitiFact in the US.

    A viral Facebook post claims that the thieves are going door-to-door claiming to be part of a government initiative to distribute masks, which are supposedly laced with chemicals "which knocks you out cold and once you're knocked out they proceed to rob you".

    In a statement provided to AFP, a Victoria Police spokesperson said the force was "unaware of any instances of this nature" occurring in Victoria. Other global fact checkers were unable to find any such police bulletin

    From Washington, D.C.

    A favourite argument of those wanting coronavirus restrictions eased or lifted, the notion that COVID-19 very rarely leads to serious illness or death, has been shared by US President Donald Trump.

    Speaking on US Independence Day, July 4, Mr Trump claimed that 99 per cent of coronavirus cases in the United States were "totally harmless"; a fact, he said, that was unique to the US.

    But fact checkers at PolitiFact, the Associated Press and FactCheck.org disputed this statement.

    According to FactCheck.org, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that through to May 30, 14 per cent of coronavirus cases led to hospitalisation, and 2 per cent required intensive care.

    Meanwhile, PolitiFact estimated the case fatality rate for confirmed cases in the US to be at least 4.2 per cent.

    And while some experts do put the death rate around 1 per cent, that is not the same as the coronavirus being "totally harmless" in 99 per cent of cases.

    "To cavalierly say that only 1 per cent of infections result in problems is wildly inaccurate," Donald Thea, a professor of Global Health at Boston University told PolitiFact.

    "We are seeing reports of young people who have recovered from mild cases developing diabetes or blood clots and suffering from chronic fatigue, respiratory compromise, persistent fever or coming back with bacterial sepsis weeks later. There's too many reports of other organ damage that hints that there are possible long term serious implications."

    In other news

    The former girlfriend and longtime associate of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein was this week arrested for her alleged role in recruiting young women for the convicted paedophile, who died in a New York prison last year.

    But almost as soon as news spread of Ghislaine Maxwell's arrest, so too did myriad rumours and conspiracies around the reclusive socialite, including ones involving the coronavirus.

    Snopes and FactCheck.org found that social media posts claiming that Ms Maxwell had been diagnosed with COVID-19 while in prison had been taken from a satirical website. PolitiFact found that an image shared on social media allegedly featuring a BBC article making the same claim was also fake.

    In another fact check combining conspiracy theorist favourites, PolitiFact rated a claim that US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci was married to Maxwell's sister as "pants on fire", while Lead Stories labelled as "hoax" a document supposedly showing that US President Donald Trump had fathered a son to Ms Maxwell in 1992.

    Edited by Ellen McCutchan with thanks to Elsie Lange, Oliver Lees and David Campbell

    Got a fact that needs checking? Tweet us @ABCFactCheck or send us an email at factcheck@rmit.edu.au

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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