How Australia’s richest man caught COVID

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January 19, 2021
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How Australia’s richest man caught COVID

Australia’s richest man contracted COVID-19 while travelling around the world last year and was granted an exemption saving him from having to quarantine in two states on his return.

Fortescue Metals chairman Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest contracted the virus from a Russian translator in Uzbekistan, forcing him to postpone the rest of his planned Central Asia leg as he pursued new renewable energy projects for the major miner.

He flew to Croatia for medical treatment before being evacuated to a Swiss hospital, where he spent three days in a specialised respiratory clinic.

Fortunately, he was the only member of his large team, which flew on Fortescue’s private jet, to test positive.

The four-month tour of 47 countries occurred at the height of the pandemic, which has halted global travel, and was part of the miner’s ambitious target to curb emissions from its West Australian operations.

The company announced in August its bold target for net zero emissions by 2040.

“I would rather have not caught COVID but it hasn’t harmed me,” Mr Forrest said in an interview with The Australian Financial Review ahead of his Boyer lecture series due to go to air on the ABC this weekend.

“I’m still as fit as a fiddle but the big thing is that it enabled us to put together a suite of assets to create a supply of renewable fuels and products which could rival the fossil-fuel sector.”

Mr Forrest returned to Perth in the new year after quarantining in NSW for 14 days while supervised by police.

The 59-year-old was allowed to return to WA – known for its strict COVID-19 rules – without having to quarantine again after being granted an exemption.

“Due to having zero contact with any persons, including the supervising police, Dr Forrest received an exemption from the Western Australian state government to return to WA without an additional quarantine period,” Fortescue chief executive Elizabeth Gaines said in an emailed statement.

She said he and every member of the travelling party received an average of 46 polymerase chain reaction tests during their time abroad.

“Prior to returning to Australia, all personnel returned negative test results and strictly adhered to national quarantine requirements,” Ms Gaines said.

“Most importantly, every one of our team members on this trip returned home safely.”

While Mr Forrest was globetrotting, his fortune hit a near $28bn due to soaring iron ore prices, driven by strong demand from China.

But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the West Australian, who was pilloried for the dismal performance of his first mining company Anaconda Nickel, which processed technically challenging nickel laterites at its Murrin Murrin mine.

He was ousted as the company’s chief executive in 2001 after investors lost a fortune on the venture.

The philanthropist made his name with Fortescue, which broke Rio Tinto and BHP’s rail duopoly in WA’s Pilbara region by building the company’s own network to transport ore to port.

Mr Forrest, who completed a PhD in marine science in 2019, told the Nine-owned publication he was “looking across the spectrum at Fortescue, to fertiliser, to making steel with hydrogen instead of coal”.

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