Pandemic Flu Doorstop with Professor John Horvath
The Minister for Health and Ageing, Tony Abbott, accompanied by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor John Horvath, announces the government will give $4.9 million to CSL, the major Australian vaccine manufacturer, to speed up the production of a candidate pandemic flu vaccine.
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22 July 2005
Tony Abbott: I’m here with Professor Horvath to provide people with an update on Australia’s pandemic influenza preparedness and to announce an important new initiative from the government.
I can announce today that the government will spend an additional $4.9 million with CSL, the major Australian vaccine manufacturer, to speed up the production of a candidate pandemic vaccine. I expect vaccine trials to start before the end of the year and this will mean that Australia is in an even better position to deal with an outbreak of pandemic flu, should that happen.
Journalist: (inaudible) how do we know which strain to put in the vaccine (inaudible)?
Tony Abbott: Well, my understanding, and I’ll defer to Professor Horvath on the technicalities, but my understanding is that CSL does have a seed strain of the H5 N1 vaccine isolated from cases in South East Asia and on the basis of that seed strain it will be developing a candidate vaccine. Now we can’t be absolutely confident that any candidate vaccine will be fully effective against a new pandemic strain. Nevertheless, we do have reasonable confidence that it will be reasonably effective and that’s why the government’s investing almost five million dollars to expedite the process of establishing a candidate vaccine and having it available here in Australia.
Journalist: What’s the time frame for the establishment of that vaccine - you say you’re speeding it up?
Tony Abbott: Well, we will begin trials before the end of the year. Obviously, if any pandemic were to occur prior to that we would move from trials to action stations but the fact that we are beginning trials this year, about eight months sooner than would otherwise have been the case without the spending of this five million dollars, is a sign of just how seriously the government is taking the bird flu threat.
Journalist: And was this prompted by the human-to-human transmission that’s been suspected in Indonesia?
Tony Abbott: Well, again, I wouldn’t want you to conclude that there has been human-to-human transmission. Obviously, we’re taking these new deaths in Indonesia very seriously but we’ve been taking this very seriously for at least 18 months. For at least 18 months, senior officers in my department have been working almost round the clock on this. We’ve already spent some 156 million dollars on establishing pandemic preparedness. Australia has on a per capita basis just about the world’s largest stockpile of anti-virals. We are rapidly building up our stockpile of syringes and masks. We have a national pandemic plan in place which has been fully worked through with all the states and territories. So while this is a serious new development, it doesn’t in itself actually raise the threat level which has been quite high for quite some time.
Journalist: So in those trials you were talking about who would be the candidates who would take part in that trial? Would it be people at risk or (inaudible)?
Tony Abbott: These trials will be run in the ordinary way, only on an extradited basis, and they will be done under the sorts of rules that the Therapeutic Goods Administration puts in place for trials. But what we’re doing with this extra money is we are allowing CSL to re-configure its plant and to begin the trial about eight months earlier than would otherwise be the case, so that should there be a pandemic outbreak in the near future we are even better placed to deal with it.
Tony Abbott: Well as I said, we’ve spent about 156 million dollars so far on pandemic preparedness. What we are doing with this 4.9 million dollars is allowing CSL to bring forward a trial of a candidate vaccine. Now if the trial is successful, we will then obviously move from the preparation of batches to the preparation of sufficient vaccine to deal with the whole population in the event of an outbreak. But that’s a further question and we’ll deal with that when we see the results of this trial.
Journalist: So what’s prompted the government to put in the extra 4.9 million dollars?
Tony Abbott: What’s prompted us to do this is our realisation that pandemic flu, should it strike, could easily be the greatest public health disaster in anyone’s lifetime. Most people have forgotten, but it’s worth reminding the Australian public that back in 1919, some 13 thousand Australians died of Spanish flu. In 1918 and 1919 some half a million Americans, out of a population of just one hundred million, died of Spanish flu. So a major pandemic flu outbreak is a very, very serious public health disaster and Australia is certainly not going to be unprepared against that contingency.
Tony Abbott: What I’ve been saying is that for the last 18 months Australia has been working overtime to deal with this possibility and what I’m announcing today is a significant new development, a significant improvement if you like, in Australia’s preparedness.
Journalist: Is it because of the recent activity in Indonesia that has sort of spurred the government to maybe bring forward our preparedness?
Tony Abbott: No, it’s because of our awareness of this issue generally and this announcement is not prompted by what’s happened in Indonesia but given what has happened in Indonesia it is timely to make it now.
Journalist: Can you give an estimate of how long before the vaccine will be available?
Tony Abbott: Well, as soon as possible. But in the end that depends upon the success of the trial and the kind of manufacturing process that will need to be put in place to make it happen, but as a result of the $4.9 million in extra spending which I announced today, our ability to get a vaccine into the field quickly, our ability to make a vaccine available to the Australian population in the event of a pandemic outbreak is much improved.
Journalist: What happens if we have an outbreak tomorrow say? Has the government got plans in place (inaudiable)?
Tony Abbott: We certainly do.
Journalist: Can I ask Professor Horvath? In your view is this enough? Or what other measures are we looking at other than the vaccine.
Professor Horvath: Well, no I think at the moment the vaccine is just the next step. This wasn’t prompted by today. As the Minister said we've been in negotiation with CSL for weeks. The seed virus we’re working with has actually been developed in the UK and is being distributed to a number of manufacturers and it’s only ready for trials at the present time. They’ve had to work on it, configure it. No one yet has made a successful vaccine. What we are doing now is speeding up the trials to get it ready. We were not in this position say 12 months ago when a seed was not available.
Journalist: Is Australia perhaps more at risk of a flu pandemic than it was 18 months ago?
Professor Horvath: Well look, that’s a hard measure. We certainly are at a higher risk than we were two years ago maybe 18 months ago, but as I said yesterday to your colleagues, the events of what happened in Indonesia in the last few days haven’t altered the threat level. It’s just another event, the same has happened in Thailand and in Vietnam and it keeps reminding us that it’s a constant threat and we need to progressively do what’s available to us to improve our preparedness.
Journalist: Once they develop the vaccine and assuming that they can, who would then, who would be in the trial? Who would they give it to see if it works?
Professor Horvath: Well, CSL will have the usual, as the Minister said, it goes through the TGA processes and also through the ethics committee. I'm not sure which ethics committees they work with, but they'll choose a number of institutions like Royal Melbourne and Westmead and other major trial centres to trial it in the normal way you'd trial any other vaccine.
Journalist: I guess what I'm getting at, like with the normal vaccine, you would trial it with patients who were at risk of the illness.
Professor Horvath: Not necessarily, not necessarily. You're just looking to see they work.
Tony Abbott: If we get a successful vaccine and I very much hope that that's what we will get out of this process, and if we have a pandemic outbreak or what we believe is imminent pandemic outbreak, our aim is to get the whole of the population vaccinated. That would be our aim.
Journalist: Do you believe the Hwang children should be, their case should be brought before the (inaudible) investigation? The Hwang children, the two children… (inaudible)
Tony Abbott: I'll just leave that for my colleague, the Minister for Immigration.
Journalist: What about the issue of Cornelia Rau …(inaudible)
Tony Abbott: Well look again, I think I should leave that to my colleague, the Minister for Immigration. Thanks.