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PM Scott Morrison coughing into his elbow
PM Scott Morrison after a National Security Committee meeting on March 1. Morrison later tested positive for COVID. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

Scott Morrison has COVID. It’s a big deal but not how you think

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s COVID diagnosis has barely registered a blip in the media.

Although admittedly there is a lot in the news – with war in Ukraine and major floods on Australia’s eastern seaboard – the lack of newsworthiness of Morrison’s diagnosis says so much about where we are in the pandemic right now.

It highlights a significant shift in both the reality and the perception of what being infected with COVID means in Australia, for the vast majority of us.

Let’s do a time-travel thought experiment.

If we go back in time

To highlight just how far we have come, let’s imagine how this diagnosis would had landed if Morrison had contracted COVID towards the start of the pandemic, in March 2020, rather than March 2022.

Regardless of your political stripes, a March 2020 diagnosis would have provoked genuine concern for his health. We knew so little about COVID with certainty back then, and what we did know was truly frightening.

The most obvious change since 2020 is the availability of safe and effective vaccines. These have completely transformed the risk the virus poses for individuals and the community.

Read more: How well do COVID vaccines work in the real world?

Vaccination, by priming the immune system, takes away one of the virus’ greatest weapons – the ability to catch the immune system by surprise.

Vaccination allows us to be pre-exposed to viral antigens (its spike protein), allowing the immune system to respond quicker and more effectively when exposed to the virus itself. This reduces the likelihood of symptomatic illness, and perhaps more importantly, severe disease.

More recently, we have also started to see more effective COVID treatments. These are also making a huge difference in preventing COVID deteriorating and causing severe illness.

Read more: Pfizer's pill is the latest COVID treatment to show promise. Here are some more

Let’s contrast the circumstances facing Morrison today with the challenges UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson and former US President Donald Trump faced when they caught COVID earlier in the pandemic.

This really rams home how much difference advances over the past year or so have made.

Johnson spent time in ICU

In March and April 2020, Johnson’s trajectory followed what we have now seen many times over. What started off as relatively mild symptoms took a drastic turn a week later and he was admitted to intensive care. He spent three days in a critical condition before being moved to a general ward, then released to recover at home.

Remember, at the time, there were no vaccines and very limited treatments.

Despite these barriers, Johnson made a full recovery. But we need to remember that even now, not all patients admitted to ICU survive or come out of the experience unscathed. Johnson was incredibly lucky.

Read more: We're two frontline COVID doctors. Here's what we see as case numbers rise

Trump used experimental therapies

Trump, who had previously played down the threat of COVID, contracted it in October 2020.

Although the full story is still a mystery, he also became very ill, perhaps more so than was officially acknowledged. Being overweight and 74 at the time were legitimate reasons to fear the worst.

Once again, context is important. Trump’s diagnosis was also before vaccines were available.

However, as United States president, he had access to experimental treatments not available to other Americans.

Specifically, Trump was only one of only a handful of people at the time to be given Regeneron, an experimental antibody cocktail, which many believe played an instrumental role in his recovery.

Like Johnson, Trump, after a troubling time, appeared to make a full recovery.

One can only speculate what his fate would have been if he were just an average 74 year-old overweight American and not the president of the United States. Like Johnson, Trump was lucky.

What does this tell us about Morrison’s chances?

If we look at the circumstances Morrison faces, there really is no comparison. Vaccines, along with the other advances we have made, means he is most likely to have mild symptoms while he isolates, will continue working, and make a full recovery.

Of course, this is not to underplay the very real risk any of us have of developing more severe illness, such as if we have a weakened immune system or an underlying health condition.

Read more: What does it mean to be immunocompromised? And why does this increase your risk of coronavirus?

But the likelihood of serious illness if fully vaccinated, even if we are at greater risk of severe COVID, is much lower thanks to vaccines.

If someone at high risk of severe COVID was infected, we also now have medicines to reduce the risk of developing severe illness.

Read more: Australia approves two new medicines in the fight against COVID. How can you get them and are they effective against Omicron?

As we wish Morrison a speedy recovery, the lack of noteworthiness of his diagnosis is something we should celebrate as the most remarkable aspect of this situation.

COVID is not to be underestimated and recent history says there will be challenges to come. This includes ensuring vaccines are distributed globally to everyone who needs them.

But the huge advances we have made in the past two years mean the threat COVID causes in March 2022 is very different to the threat it posed in March 2020.

Read more: Australia is failing marginalised people, and it shows in COVID death rates

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