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How an Australian researcher ended up in the spotlight at a White House coronavirus briefing

When Craig Dalton heard that his name came up at a nationally televised White House press briefing Monday, the medical epidemiologist at the University of Newcastle in Australia says, “I didn’t believe it.” 

Dalton did a quick web search and his disbelief transformed into amazement. “Turned out, it was actually true,” he told ScienceInsider.

Dalton’s unexpected moment in the media spotlight came as Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, and Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stepped to the White House lectern to describe a new set of guidelines that the U.S. government would distribute as part of its effort to slow the spread of the illness caused by the novel coronavirus in the United States.

Birx said the new guidelines emphasize common sense and practical steps to keep workplaces, schools, and homes safe. “All of this information,” Birx said, “came from a paper that Dr. Fauci provided from the Australians—first author Dalton. So you can actually look up the scientific evidence that informed each of these guidelines.”

Birx was referring to a draft paper that Dalton and two colleagues, physicians Stephen Corbett of the University of Sydney and Anthea Katelaris of the Australian National University, posted online on 5 March. The paper describes “pre-emptive, low-cost” steps people could take early in a COVID-19 outbreak, spelling out nearly 50 specific “interventions”—which range from oft-repeated precautions like not shaking hands and using hand sanitizer to opening windows in tight spaces and putting a sign on the door of your home that says, “Welcome if you are well.” The authors grouped the interventions into four boxes of bullets for workplaces, schools, homes and entertainment, or transportation settings.

Craig Dalton

Craig Dalton

“You can take steps that might decrease the transmission rate and the severity of the disease before you have to impose more heavy-handed interventions,” Dalton says. “The earlier those steps are taken, the better.”

Fauci, who had been sent the paper by an Australian colleague, said the paper—and the four boxes—captured his attention because the language was so precise and clear. “These are really simple, low-tech things,” Fauci said.

Dalton’s 5 minutes of fame has brought him full circle: In the early 1990s, he trained in the United States with the Epidemic Intelligence Service operated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2006, after having returned to Australia, Dalton founded Flutracking.net, which uses crowdsourcing to track flu outbreaks in Australia and New Zealand. Dalton has even written a free ebookHow NOT To Piss Off A Community—on how health professionals can engage with communities that don’t trust authorities.

Dalton sounded a bit stunned by the idea that, almost overnight, his manuscript will become the basis for a high-profile education campaign in the United States. “The work hasn’t even gone through peer review,” he says. “It’s a preprint.”