Inside the unprecedented global race for a coronavirus cure

Intensive care beds are beginning to fill up the Sydney hospital where Harriet, a medical registrar, has been working to prepare for a surge in COVID-19 cases. “We keep saying it’s going to happen next week,” she said. “But we’re not there yet.”

Australia has had just under 6,000 confirmed cases as of April 6, and Harriet’s hospital has done what it can to be ready if that number starts to rise. They have created a COVID-19 ward and a second intensive care unit, and made plans to ratchet up the response by moving junior doctors from their rotations onto the virus response.

“It’s really hard to say if we’re going to be ready. I hope we are,” she said. “It’s sort of the eerie calm before the storm. We’re waiting for it to hit. Because what happens is, it comes in at a trickle, then suddenly it’s a roar.”

Their preparations are hindered by the fact that as yet the disease, which only emerged a few months ago, is still poorly understood. There are no drugs proven to work on the virus.

Shortages of ventilators, beds and the personal protective equipment that nurses and doctors need to stop themselves from being infected has put a colossal strain on health systems around the world. Harriet has been receiving messages from former classmates, including those in Italy where more than 15,000 people have died. There, she said, her colleagues have been forced into impossible decisions over which patients get ventilators and which are left untreated.

“The system is collapsing. It’s impossible. They can’t keep up. It’s horrifying. I read those messages to remind myself,” she said. “Right now, everybody’s holding their breath. We’re just waiting. And hoping that what we’ve done is going to be enough.”

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