“The thing we need most as GPs is some masks,” said Dr Harry Nespolon, president of the college.
“They are not readily available. They are not easy to get. And I gather the Commonwealth has 10 million stored at the moment. This is the time they should be distributing some.”
The death toll from coronavirus in China rose to 80 on Monday, with the number of confirmed cases now at 2744. Five infections have been confirmed in Australia so far. That number is expected to rise.
When a person with suspected coronavirus arrives at a clinic, the federal health department has instructed GPs to fit them with masks and place them in isolation to stop them spreading the disease.
Doctors treating them need to wear respirators and safety glasses.
The man with Victoria’s first confirmed case of coronavirus arrived at his GP presenting with symptoms – but the doctor failed to recognise he had the virus and sent him home.
The man went to hospital the next day, potentially spreading the virus further.
Professor Raina MacIntyre, a global biosecurity expert based at the Kirby Institute in Sydney, said GP clinics were not ready for coronavirus.
“I don’t believe GPs surgeries are at all well prepared. At the moment we have a shortage of masks. If you walk into a chemist you won’t be able to get one.”
Dr Nespolon rejected that criticism.
“Look, we don’t have hazmat suits. But having said that neither does China. I don’t think anyone is sort of completely prepared for this to start off.
“We have protocols about putting people in the right place, and we have protocols about putting people in the right gear. We deal with infections all the time. We deal with influenza every year.”
Almost half a million masks were released earlier this month from the stockpile to help people and emergency services workers in smoke-covered areas affected by Australia’s summer of bushfires.
While Australia’s health authorities prepare for the virus, other scientists are desperately trying to work out how fast it is spreading.
Professor James McCaw, a mathematical biologist at the University of Melbourne, is part of a working group urgently convened by the World Health Organisation to try to model the spread of the virus.
The group’s modelling shows each infected person tends to infect three other people.
That makes it more infectious than the flu, but less infectious than SARS and much less infectious than measles, where one person is likely to infect up to 20 people.
“This has the characteristic of something that is likely to be well controllable, but maybe not as easily as SARS. We have to wait and see,” said Professor McCaw.
A clearer picture of the virus has also started to emerge.
Genetic studies suggest the virus has come from bats, not snakes, said Associate Professor Ian Mackay, an infectious disease expert at the University of Queensland.
“It means humans don’t have antibodies to it. And often it’s quite different to anything we have seen, so our immune virus will react strenuously to it.”
SARS is also thought to have come from bats. That was the first time an animal coronavirus jumped into humans, leaving health authorities scrambling.
This time they are much better prepared. Many of the tests and treatments developed for SARS and MERS can also be used on the new coronavirus.
Liam is The Age and Sydney Morning Herald’s science reporter