Chilling hotel quarantine aircon theory


Airconditioning will be probed as a potential cause of a six-person coronavirus cluster, which resulted in the extraordinary evacuation of Brisbane's Hotel Grand Chancellor yesterday.

Mystery surrounds the outbreak, involving four travellers in quarantine at the Grand Chancellor, a cleaner who worked there and her partner.

Genomic sequencing has linked all six cases to the highly infectious UK COVID-19 variant, dubbed B117.

But health experts are at a loss to explain how the cleaner became infected or how a father and his adult daughter, recently returned from Lebanon, contracted the virus at the hotel, rather than while they were overseas.

Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young said the outbreak had been tracked back to a man, in his 30s, who returned to Brisbane from the UK with his partner on December 30. The man tested positive to B117 three days later and his partner has also been confirmed as having the variant.

Ambulances waiting outside the Hotel Grand Chancellor to transport guests to other quarantine facilities. Picture: Tara Croser.
Ambulances waiting outside the Hotel Grand Chancellor to transport guests to other quarantine facilities. Picture: Tara Croser.

Both were in quarantine on floor seven of the Grand Chancellor before being transferred to hospital.

Although their room was on the same floor of the hotel as the father, in his 40s, and his adult daughter, who arrived into Brisbane on January 1, they were not in neighbouring rooms.

Dr Young was informed late on Tuesday night, of genomic sequencing connecting all six cases, including a Hotel Grand Chancellor cleaner, who tested positive to the UK variant a week ago, and her partner.

As speculation grows about how the outbreak occurred, Health Minister Yvette D'Ath called on people who had information about potential breaches of hotel quarantine protocols to come forward.

She said they should phone Policelink on 13 1444.

"We know all six have the same virus but we aren't able to identify, at this stage, what action, or breach, or environmental circumstances, have led to that transmission," Ms D'Ath said.


A joint police-health investigation into the cause of the cluster has begun, including whether the virus could have spread through the hotel's airconditioning.

But Queensland-based Infectious disease physician and microbiologist Paul Griffin said he would be surprised if airconditioning was involved, given the Grand Chancellor had successfully been taking travellers into hotel quarantine since last September.

"If it was readily spreading through the airconditioning, it would have happened months ago and at far greater magnitude," he said.

Associate Professor Griffin said it was more likely to have occurred through surface contamination or breaches of protocols surrounding personal protective equipment for hotel quarantine workers.



"We know with PPE, it's highly dependent on how it's used and particularly how it's removed and disposed of," he said.

He called for the police-health investigation into the cluster's cause to be adequately funded because of the "significant ramifications".

"I think diverting all of our attention, all of our resources, all of our expertise to making sure the hotel quarantine is done right, so we can be a bit less reactive, would certainly be worthwhile," he said.

"I've been saying for some time that I think that really needs to be our complete focus, making the risk of cases escaping from hotel quarantine as close to zero as possible.

"At the moment we're diverting a lot of resources to other activities that probably contribute far less, such as … domestic border control."

Infectious disease epidemiologist Linda Selvey, based at the University of Queensland's School of Public Health, backed Dr Young's decision to evacuate all 129 people in quarantine at the Grand Chancellor to other hotels, given the source of the outbreak was unknown.

"There's no choice," Associate Professor Selvey.

The evacuated guests will have to sit out another 14 days of hotel quarantine at government expense.





Originally published as Chilling hotel quarantine aircon theory