New Zealand could pull off bold goal of eliminating virus

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In this Friday, April 17, 2020, photo, medical staff test a supermarket employee who volunteered at a pop-up community COVID-19 testing station at a carpark in Christchurch, New Zealand. New Zealand has set itself an ambitious goal of not just containing the coronavirus, but eliminating it altogether. Experts believe the country could pull it off, thanks to its geography and decisive early actions by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has put the country into a strict lockdown. But whatever happens, the country will continue feeling the effects of the pandemic, which has hobbled its vital tourism industry. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

WELLINGTON – While most countries are working on ways to contain the coronavirus, New Zealand has set itself a much more ambitious goal: eliminating it altogether.

And experts believe the country could pull it off.

The virus "doesn't have superpowers,” said Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccine expert at the University of Auckland. “Once transmission is stopped, it’s gone.”

Geography has helped. If any place could be described as socially distant it would be New Zealand, surrounded by stormy seas, with Antarctica to the south. With 5 million people spread across an area the size of Britain, even the cities aren't overly crowded.

And Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has taken bold steps, putting the country under a strict lockdown in late March, when only about 100 people had tested positive for the new virus. Her motto: “Go hard and go early."

New Zealand has so far avoided a widespread outbreak, and new cases have dwindled from a peak of about 90 per day in early April to just five on Tuesday, leaving the goal tantalizingly close. Only 13 people have died so far, and Ardern has been personally briefed on each death.

"We have the opportunity to do something no other country has achieved: elimination of the virus," Ardern told reporters last week. “But it will continue to need a team of 5 million behind it.”

Petousis-Harris said the country had managed to avoid the confusion and half-measures that have hampered the response in many other places.