The promising signs Australia is heading toward COVID-normal

Spring is in the air, native flowers are blooming and Australia appears to have finally brought the coronavirus under control.

For the first time since March, hopes of becoming a ‘COVID-normal’ country like New Zealand actually seems possible.

There’s even talk of restarting travel to Asia.

And while the threat of COVID-19 lingers without an effective vaccine, there are promising signs that show Australia is turning the corner.

Low coronavirus case numbers

On Tuesday, Victoria – the epicentre of Australia’s second wave – had its 11th consecutive day without recording a coronavirus case or death.

Nationwide community transmission has been hitting new lows too.

“This is the third successive day now we’ve had no community transmission in Australia,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday.

“That’s very welcome, but it can’t be taken for granted and the challenges of the pandemic and the COVID-19 recession don’t just end.”

The only virus cases reported in Australia on Tuesday were five quarantined returned travellers in NSW and a young woman in quarantine in Queensland who had returned from Turkey.

Fresh vaccine developments

Adding to hopes of conquering COVID was an announcement on Tuesday that a coronavirus vaccine candidate had proven more than 90 per cent effective in late-stage clinical trials.

The US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which developed the experimental vaccine with German immunotherapy company BioNTech, released successful data from the final stage of its clinical trial that showed their mRNA-based vaccine could help prevent coronavirus in most people who received it.

Millions of doses of potential coronavirus vaccinations are already being produced in Australia, subject to final clinical trials, with hopes inoculations could begin in March.

Although infectious diseases experts hailed the findings as “promising”, many have warned against popping the champagne just yet.

“This announcement is very encouraging, however it will not on its own mean that we will be able to resume ‘business as usual’ any time soon,” said Associate Professor Linda Selvey, a public health physician and an infectious diseases epidemiologist at the University of Queensland.

Pfizer has forgone its traditional secrecy during the coronavirus vaccine trials. Photo: AAP

“The vaccine is an mRNA vaccine, and has to be stored at -70C, and can only be stored at 4C for 24 hours. This will pose challenges for mass vaccination campaigns.”

She suggested the vaccine, if proven effective in more vulnerable populations like the elderly, be used to protect those people first, with other vaccines used to protect everyone else.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian confirmed plans were underway to ensure health workers were first in line to get a vaccine.

“The health advice I received is quite optimistic about a potential vaccine in the early part of next year, but it will be limited in the number of people who can receive it,” the Premier said on Tuesday.

“We’re actually drawing up a plan now in NSW to ensure those most vulnerable and, of course, our health workers and those dealing directly with COVID patients manage to have that vaccine.”

Border restrictions easing

In another sign Australia is gaining confidence in its fight against the virus, border restrictions are gradually easing across the country.

On November 3, Queensland reopened to the rest of Australia, except Victoria and people from greater Sydney.

If Victoria’s impressive containment of COVID lasts, Queensland may restart quarantine-free travel with the state by early December.

Interstate holidays are about to become a possibility. Photo: Getty

Last week, Tasmania allowed quarantine-free travel to NSW residents, having already opened its borders to Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory.

It plans to reopen to Victorians from December 1.

On November 23, NSW will reopen its border with Victoria.

Overseas travel on the agenda

Unlike Europe and the United States, several Asian countries have done an exceptional job of containing COVID-19.

In addition to New Zealand, which resumed flights into Melbourne on Monday, parts of Asia will be at the top of our post-pandemic travel list.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said reports of the promising Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine trials was “the best news the travel industry has had all year”.

“The news from the trial is extremely positive, probably better than most people were expecting,” Mr Joyce said.

On Tuesday, the PM said international travel would again be on the agenda at Friday’s national cabinet meeting.

“Out of many parts of Asia, particularly in North Asia – places like Taiwan and … provinces of China, Singapore – we are looking at what alternative arrangements could be had to channel visitors through appropriate quarantine arrangements for low-risk countries,” he said.

“That is a process other countries are doing as well. We are open to that. We have not come to a point of decision on that.”

That’s right.

Dreams of tucking into some Sichuan noodles in China or spotting dogs in prams in Taiwan might soon be a reality.

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