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Canberra Press Conference, 22 January 2022, on Rapid antigen tests, National Eating Disorder Research Centre and COVID-19 Vaccines

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt, with Christine Morgan and Alison McMillan, at the Canberra Press Conference on 22 January 2022, on Rapid antigen tests, National Eating Disorder Research Centre and COVID-19 Vaccines.

The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Former Minister for Health and Aged Care

Media event date:
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General public

GREG HUNT:         

Welcome everybody. I’m joined today by Christine Morgan, the head of the National Mental Health Commission, and Professor Alison McMillan, the Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer of Australia.

In particular, I want to address three things. Firstly, the vaccination program, important signs of hope coming out of New South Wales in relation to their judgement that they have now reached and potentially passed the peak of cases.

Secondly, is that new arrangements for international arrivals to make it easier for Australians to return home.

And thirdly, very important announcements about support for eating disorders, the condition which can affect up to a million Australians at any one time. And that's been particularly tough for so many Australians and for family members during the course of the pandemic.

Firstly, I would note that we've now had over a million vaccinations in the last three days and the highest five-day period for vaccinations during the course of the rollout, and indeed the highest five-day period on record for vaccinations in Australian medical history.

And at this point in time, what we see is that we've had 335,000 doses delivered yesterday and that we've had over 1.67 million doses over the course of the last five days over the week. That's, I think, extremely heartening.

And it comes with the fact that at the same time, we are seeing, in New South Wales, on the advice that New South Wales Health provided publicly yesterday, real signs of hope that the peak has been reached and potentially passed.

Although that does not mean that the pressure on hospitals and those cases which have occurred recently will not translate to some very difficult and severe cases and loss of life over the coming weeks.

So, that's important to note that real signs of hope, but at the same time, those challenges remain. But the system is well prepared.

I'm very pleased to announce that there are changes to pre-departure testing arrangements for international arrivals into Australia, two principal actions being taken.

The first is to allow the use of rapid antigen tests for people coming to Australia if they have had a test in the 24 hours prior to them departing. That will also be accepted as sufficient proof for arrival and for those that are wishing to do that.

There are two ways to do it to provide certified proof that they have had a supervised test before a medical officer such as a doctor or a pharmacist and nurse, a pathologist, a pathology collector. The other alternative is through an authorised airport testing process.

These are very common around the world, and this change will make it easier for Australians to return home. Around the world we know that the PCR testing systems or equivalent testing systems in other countries are also under challenge with the Omicron wave. And so this is a recognition of that. It also brings it in line with Australian domestic arrangements.

The second thing is that again, in line with Australian domestic arrangements and on advice of the Chief Medical Officer following consultation with the medical expert panel at the AHPPC, the period following a positive test before someone can return and board a flight will be shortened from 14 days to seven days.

That is again in line with domestic practise and following the changed nature of Omicron and following the medical advice of the Chief Medical Officer in consultation with the AHPPC.

So these are important steps in helping to bring Australians home. It recognises the global reality of a more infectious but less severe strain in terms of the Omicron variant and the challenge that has created internationally in relation to access to PCR tests.

And so I think that's a sensible move. Masks will still be required on flights, and that's again about limiting the spread of the Omicron variant and protecting those that are in flight.

The other thing that I want to announce today is that there's $13 million for a very important challenge. A mental health challenge, but in so many cases, dramatic or physical consequences, which is support for eating disorders.

And this in particular is $13 million for a National Eating Disorders Centre to be led by the InsideOut Institute at the University of Sydney. There are 10 partners and Christine Morgan, who has had such a strong history in this space, will talk more about the details.

But above all else, it builds on what we've done with up to 60 Medicare subsidised treatments a year now, with the National Network of Eating Disorders. It's an immensely challenging condition for so many individuals and so many families and everything we can do.

This is a personal passion. It's a passion for the PM. Anything we can do will hopefully make a real difference, and this National Eating Disorder Centre will help coordinate national research and provide new pathways for treatment.

Just more generally, in relation to the vaccination program, over 335,000 vaccinations yesterday. We're now at 1.98 million, approximately, doses over the course of the last rolling seven-day period. And 47.74 million as a cumulative national vaccination total.

The first dose rate 95.3 per cent, the second dose rate is at 92.9 per cent. Significantly, over 250,000 boosters yesterday, 252,000, and we're now 6.3 million boosters, or 62 per cent of the eligible population.

I particularly want to acknowledge the work that's been done with children. 54,000 children vaccinated yesterday and over 600,000 vaccinations to date, and that's in just over a week and a half of vaccinations. And importantly, there are 1.8 million doses in the field.

So, if your particular provider already has full bookings, it may be a general practice, please test with your pharmacist. We know that the state systems have a significant number of available bookings and so, important to check to see that there are other options if your particular provider has a full set of bookings.

But 600,000 vaccinations, 1.8 million children's vaccination doses in the field. And so there are many, many options that are available. And we want to thank all the parent for bringing their children forward and all the children bravely coming forward. But also encourage all parents to bring their children forward over the coming weeks.

By the end of next week, we will have more vaccinations in the field than there are children. Five to 11 in Australia will have approximately 2.4 million in the field, and that means that opportunity is available for every child everywhere to be vaccinated.

And we thank all of our vaccination providers, in particular our GPs, but our pharmacists, our state and Commonwealth vaccinators.

With that, I'll turn to Christine Morgan and then Professor McMillan.


Thank you, Minister Hunt.

And truly, what an exciting announcement it is today for $13 million for Australia's first National Research Centre for Eating Disorders. It's very much based on a collaborative approach, as the Minister has said, and I do want to note that it's the collaboration, I think, which has really been underpinning the work that's been done in the eating disorder sector, and it will be continued in this research approach.

As the Minister has said, the research centre is being brought together by Sydney University's InsideOut. But significantly it involves a number of universities and institutes. We have La Trobe University, Deakin University, the ANU, Monash, the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, which is doing incredible work as we look at the genetics behind an eating disorder, the University of Queensland, the University of Western Australia and, of course, our critical partners, Orygen and Black Dog Institute.

Again, critically, it also involves lived experience, and we know that that has also been a game changer in understanding eating disorders and what is needed to treat them. I think it's probably stating the obvious, but let me say it: rigorous research truly underpins our ability to identify and ensure that we have available the very best treatment options for Australians with eating disorders.

And the charter, if you like, of this research centre, is that translation. The translation of rigorous research into treatment options, changes in clinical practice as is needed, prevention, a very real passion, sustainable recovery. It will build our research capability and will provide an opportunity for true coordination across Australia.

As the Minister has said, critically, this actually builds on the pillars which have already been established for eating disorders, as he has mentioned $110 million for Medicare sessions to provide sufficient evidence based sessions for people to actually get the treatment they need.

That's a real game changer. And that goes back to 2018. But also the residential centres, as we've talked about previously. The very first residential centre, which is opened on the Sunshine Coast, Wandi Nerida last year to be replicated if you like or followed up with them around Australia.

The online counselling services which have been critical. I think I've also on record as having said this, but during the perfect storm of conditions created by COVID, we've seen an explosion in eating disorders and most concerningly, in early onset eating disorders. Our little people are getting them a lot earlier.

So yes, the estimation that we worked on a few years ago is that over a million Australians have eating disorders, though not a million are diagnosed or treated. I actually believe that number has significantly increased. If we've had up to 50 per cent increase in presentations over the last couple of years, we're talking about far more than just one million Australians.

And we know that if they're not treated, if they're not diagnosed, not only can they, but they do kill. In 2022 we still have Australians who are undiagnosed and therefore untreated.

At the heart of each and every one of the investments that have been achieved for eating disorders, and central, in fact to today's investment, is a dedication and a commitment to collaboration by Australia's eating disorder and mental health experts.

We've already seen what great things can be achieved through this approach. So on behalf of those who suffer from these disorders and their families and carers, thank you. Thank you to each of you have been at the forefront of this collaboration over the last 15 years.

Your commitment, your drive, and your willingness to work together has brought real hope, real change and has inspired many. I believe this research will not only enable us to ensure we have more focused treatments for those who are suffering from eating disorders.

But I hold on to that aspiration and it's an aspiration that I now believe is within reach. One day we will be able to prevent these disorders and translated research will drive us to there. I also believe that we can now hand on heart say Australia is leading the world when it comes to not only understanding eating disorders but treating and, as I've just said, eventually preventing them.

This first National Research Centre for Eating Disorders in Australia will enable that leadership not only to be further developed, but amplified and most importantly, applied for the benefit of Australians. Thank you.


Thanks, Christine. Professor McMillan.


Thank you, Minister, and thank you, Christine.

As Minister said, as we've heard yesterday from New South Wales, we are cautiously optimistic now that we are seeing the peak in hospitalisations. Certainly in New South Wales, and we do anticipate to see a similar pattern or pathway in the other states and territories, particularly Victoria, New South Wales.

It's very encouraging, but we just need to monitor those figures as Dr Chant has mentioned yesterday. But it is really important to remind everyone that our hospital systems and our health systems are working incredibly hard at the moment.

Many staff are furloughed as we know, and it's what we're calling upon our healthcare workers to rise again, to meet this challenge. And I ask everyone out there to remember the importance of the respect of our healthcare workers now and as always, and that at no time should we ever tolerate any type of aggression towards our healthcare workers.

And sadly, we have seen some of that in recent times. So please, be kind to our healthcare workers became to all of those out there who are doing an absolutely amazing job. And we are, as I say, optimistic that we're seeing the peak and we'll see that that trend into other jurisdictions in the coming weeks.

Thanks, Minister.


Thanks, Alison. And just in relation to the questions, I'll start with Jono Kearsley and then work across the room, please.


Thanks, Minister. Just in relation to Mark McGowan's decision to extend the WA hard border closure beyond February five. Does the Federal Government agree with Anthony Albanese that that is the right course of action to take?

And secondly, there's been much debate for many weeks now on rapid antigen tests. Not having enough in the country, states saying that they've procured billions but people queuing for hours on end to be only to find there aren't any on the shelves.

Is it not a failure of all governments, federal and state, to have planned adequately for the opening up to ensure that there was supply in the country?


Sure, look in relation to Western Australia, that's very much a matter for the Western Australian government.

We understand many families will be disappointed, their ability to meet loved ones, their ability to see beautiful young babies or to be present for weddings.

That's all been deferred. It is a matter for Western Australia, and so we recognise that that's a decision for the Western Australian Government.

In relation to rapid antigen tests, we've been in the market since August. We've been supplying the aged care facilities since August. We've provided over 6.6 million since August. And in particular, we've also been assisting the states.

We've provided support to Queensland with some 200,000. I'm advised today which we have provided to Queensland to support them as an example. So we're doing our bit to support aged care and others.

We, as I say, planned early. We made sure that these tests were approved, I think 66 tests are approved in Australia across point of care and self-tests.

And that we've been encouraging states and territories to place their own orders. And now we know that there are more than 200 million orders that are in place.

I do have to say that one of the reasons that we have moved apart from aligning with the domestic circumstances for international arrivals is that this is a global challenge. We know from the United Kingdom, the United States, significant articles outlining the challenges they've faced, both with their PCR and with their rapid antigen tests or lateral flow, as they're called in the in the UK and in other countries.

So it's a global challenge which comes from the Omicron wave. In our case, we were in the field early. In our case, we were ordering early and we've been pleased to be able to supply and support aged care, Indigenous care and also states to this point in time.


It's a supply problem now, but it wasn't a supply problem last year. If you say you went into the market early, as your Government has repeatedly claimed. Why were people queuing to find there weren't any rapid antigen tests over December and January?


Well, the first thing is that the states provide fundamental testing that has always been a responsibility. We provide 50 per cent of the cost of that. We provide direct tests to aged care and then the private market is supplying the community through pharmacies and through stock.

And that's very much the case around the world. And so I think it's important to understand the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, other countries. This is a global challenge which is followed from the Omicron wave.

Not only have we had the 66 tests approved. Not only were we in the market and providing that supply, but the Commonwealth was a very strong supporter of the role of rapid antigen tests. And understandably, the medical community had emphasised the role of PCR, which has kept Australia safe.

And I think this is a very important thing that the strong medical emphasis on PCR testing, because it is more accurate, has meant that we were able to maintain a tracing system which allowed during the Wuhan outbreak, during the UK strain or the Alpha strain, the Alpha variant and through the Delta variant, very strong contact tracing.

And Alison may wish to add something on this, but that in turn was appropriate at that stage. And as we have moved to opening up and as we have Omicron, we recognise, and the medical community has recognised there's a much broader role, where it's not a case of trying to trace every case for the rapid antigen tests.

So, we were in the market early. We've been providing continuous supply and that has helped keep people safe. But equally, we recognise that there's been a global spike in demand and states and territories, and the Commonwealth and the private sector are all bringing additional tests into the country.

I will note all of those have been fulfilled as yet. That's a universal proposition across the country that there are challenges right around the world in that supply, but we're in that position where that supply is increasing.


Adequately, did you, Minister? That's the case, isn't it?


I'm sorry?


You just didn't plan adequately enough. That's the case, isn't it?


No. I respectfully disagree. We set out, very clearly, the requirements for aged care. We put in place the additional the additional testing arrangements. So as tests were approved early, 66, and the advice that I have from the head of the TGA, Professor Skerritt, is that that is in fact a higher number than has been approved by the USFDA. I'll take that on advice from Professor Skerritt.



Now, I've got some questions on rapid antigen tests, and then if you can indulge me when you've answered them, I'd like to ask you some questions about masks.

Now, first of all, there's a whole bunch of words that you just said there, but the bottom line is you're suddenly relying on this idea that somehow you're responsible for ordering tests for some discrete industries, like aged care, for example, and somehow then suggesting that the responsibility for getting tests into the country for normal purchasers, families and so on, is a matter for the private industry or a matter for the states.

Now, with respect, you have run a National Cabinet. Isn't it ridiculous for you to now try and blame shift that onto other people? Why wasn't National Cabinet actually having a proper national plan to get more rapid antigen tests into the country?

And on that front, my substantial question is this: since mid-January, a whole bunch of suppliers have basically said that they've made orders that have been taken from under their noses. You have accused them of being liars. You've sooled the ACCC onto them.

And yet now evidence has emerged that they actually were given that information in good faith. And they told people that, and you're now saying; well, you’re liars, we’re going to take you to the ACCC. The part that you missed out was that you signed a $26 million contract with the only supplier of those saliva antigen tests.

Now, don't you think you should have included that information that you just signed a $26 million contract with them when you were rolling them out to issue denials and call the other people liars?


No, with great respect. The claims that were made about the Commonwealth are false. They have been referred to the ACCC, because they are false.

In relation to a particular example that you provided me earlier this morning, I have confirmed with the Department of Health, the Commonwealth has not received and is not expecting to receive any supply from that supplier until at least February 7. A month after these were alleged to have arrived in Australia.

So I would respectfully say, in relation to this particular case, it's clearly false, and the supplier has also said it's false.

And in addition to that, the Commonwealth hasn't received any supply from that supplier, nor is the Commonwealth expecting to receive anything until February 7, our contract was always for February supply.

And so that claim is something that occurred before we have signed any agreements, the Commonwealth then signed an agreement on January 17, and published on the 18th. That fact, and in addition to that, the alleged supplies which arrived in Australia were, I believe, in early January, about January 7.

I think it would be important to test whether or not they ever arrived, and important to test, if so, where they went, because no supplies have come from that company to the Commonwealth, no supplies of that test have come to the Commonwealth. And so the claims are clearly, palpably false.


But my question is one of omission, right? I mean, it's quite clear that the government has not seized those tests, right? And we have never reported that we've made that clear, but what you have left out is that the sole provider of those companies is a company that you’ve just signed a $26 million contract with, right?

And so you've signed the 26. Shouldn't you go ask them what happened? Because you you've put all of these suppliers in this situation, which is very stressful, where you've told them that the ACCC is coming after them and they're liars.

The bottom line, they're small business owners who have paid money for these tests and they haven't turned up. So shouldn't you go and find out where they went?


Well, two things here, respectfully. One is actually the Commonwealth signed an agreement on the 17th, I believe, 10 days after these alleged supplies were alleged to have arrived in the country.

So firstly, I would suggest that investigation is done as to whether or not these supplies ever arrived in the country.

And secondly, if they did, they did not come to the Commonwealth. I think everybody has accepted that now. So the claims have been, are and will continue to be utterly false and fabricated about the Commonwealth taking or receiving, taking or receiving.

That's been rejected by the company. We did actually go and check, and they issued a denial. And then secondly, in relation to any supplies, it will be an interesting question as to whether or not anything ever arrived.

And if so, where they went. Whether they were provided to someone else, but they had not been provided to the Commonwealth. And it's a pretty simple investigation. Bills of lading, consignment notes, customs as to whether or not the claimed arrivals occurred.

But the bottom line? It's completely fabricated this notion that anything arrived.


But you can find that out tomorrow by ringing up the person that you just gave $26 million presumably to.

But my question is in relation to the RAT scheme that starts next week at pharmacists. You know, can you guarantee when pensioners walk in there that they're actually going to be able to get a test?

And my other question relates to masks. We have a lot of advice that surgical masks don't protect against Omicron. We are regularly seeing ministers and your colleague here today standing up in surgical masks. Doesn't that send the wrong message?

Shouldn't you be encouraging people to wear N95 masks? Why are they not being provided to low income people? Joe Biden is distributing them across America.

What is the government's message on masks? Are surgical masks safe? Are they not safe enough? And if they're not safe enough, what are you doing to distribute safer masks to the community?


 Sure. Look, firstly, I'll respond in relation to the pension scheme, and so 6.6 million Australians are part of that scheme. That will commence with the first access available from the 24th.

That has always been, as we have said since the outset, in partnership with the states and territories. But that would be subject to the supply within the particular facility, whether it's a pharmacy in New South Wales or Victoria or Queensland or Western Australia or in any part of the country. So it will depend on their particular supply.

But it's about having up to 66 million tests available over the course of the coming months. And I think that that's an important thing. The second thing here in relation to masks, I'll turn to Professor McMillan. I apologise, it looks like we've lost video contact.

But Alison, if you could answer in relation to mask standards.


 Yes, Minister.

(INAUDIBLE) This week we are further reviewing the evidence around the recommendations we make to the community around masks, and there is no evidence to suggest that we should be moving towards, as we know, P2 or N95 respirators in the community setting.

A double layered cloth mask or a surgical mask that is fitted over your nose, mouth and chin does provide protection. And remember, a mask is only one part of the suite of things that we do to prevent the spread.

Staying home if you get symptoms, those physical distancing, good ventilation, good hand hygiene and (INAUDIBLE), all those things continue. I am aware that there are some publications out there suggesting a move to P2 N95, but that's not supported in the empirical evidence.

The evidence we would use to make recommendations around the use of masks. So again, cloth masks with a double layer often have to be frequently washed, or a surgical mask changed on a regular basis, good hand hygiene does provide protection along with all of the other things, and that's the ongoing recommendation.

Thanks Minister.


Why don’t we provide masks to low income people? I mean, even surgical masks, which a lot of experts are saying does not provide the correct level of safety against Omicron are expensive.

Like why are you constantly, you know, they hand out masks for free at Parliament House for relatively wealthy, employed people. What are you doing about getting masks to low income families?


Sure. So, the National Medical Stockpile has delivered over 100 million masks to date. They've been provided by a general practices.

We’ve been supporting aged care and we've been supporting Indigenous communities. So over 100 million masks have been provided a mixture of surgical masks and P2 or N95 masks.

And I think it is important to understand, one of the things we've done is we've followed the medical advice throughout. And I respect that there will be differing views. But one of the critical steps in Australia has been that medical advice, and there are always people with different views.

There were those who've had strong views on some vaccines over others, those who've had very strong views against rapid antigen tests because they've been less accurate. There are those that have had very strong views in favour of some or against other masks.

And so, our approach is pretty clear. We'll just continue to follow that medical advice.



Minister, just a couple of questions on children, vaccines and schools, given that we know vaccines take a couple of weeks to have full effect after you have one. What's your response to parents who are concerned that even if they can get an appointment, even if they can secure a vaccine for the child next week, days before school goes back, that they are potentially sending their kids back to school under protected?

And just secondly, just on this debate around the efficacy of air filters or air purifiers or HEPA filters, have you received any advice about whether they are necessary in schools? And should governments be moving to ensure that they are installed before schools go back?


 Sure. Look, firstly, just in relation to children's vaccinations, as I say, over 603,000, there are many places available around the country. We're seeing well over 50,000 vaccinations a day, 54,000 yesterday.

And the states in particular have significant numbers of unfilled places that are available. And so if you are looking for a place for your child, please bring them forward and we would encourage you to do that.

In relation to the safety and vaccination, we do know and Alison can give more advice on this, that the impact on the disease is far milder, as Professor Paul Kelly has set out this week in relation to children. And the states are taking very strong measures within their schools to provide protection.

But in relation to the filters, I'll turn to Professor McMillan.


Thanks, Minister.

We know that in Victoria, they are doing some work with schools in putting a range of filters in place. The advice we've provided thus far from the Expert Advisory Group on Infection Control is that an assessment of the ventilation of that school needs to be done with the appropriate expertise, such as an occupational hygienist or an expert in those type of things.

We will continue to monitor what we see out of Victoria, because the use of these things is still in its early development, I would suggest. So we may see the introduction of more filters and monitors in the coming months.

But at the moment, we're monitoring what we're seeing and working with Victoria very closely, who are leading the work in schools on the use of the filter systems.

But I think it important, as the Minister has said, as we know the impact of COVID, and particularly Omicron, on children is mild. Irrespective of that, we are encouraging them to be vaccinated and take that vaccine opportunity now before their return to school.

And also, of course, it's important with the children to reinforce all of the other measures that I mentioned earlier, which are a part of the suite of things that help prevent transmission of COVID.


Thank you very much everybody.


Sorry, Minister, just before you wrap up one question briefly for Christine Morgan, who's been waiting here incredibly patiently.

Miss Morgan, you discussed earlier the issue with eating disorders in this country. I just want to know going into now the third year of this pandemic, what is your greatest concern for mental health now in this country? Which age groups are you most concerned about and what areas need addressing?


Good question, thank you. Because I think, as we have said before and I very clearly say again, the mental health consequences of what we have been going through, not only with the pandemic, but how of necessity we've had to manage it, will have a long tail to them.

In terms of a general approach or a position with respect to the impact on mental health of Australians. My observation, and I'll come back to your question about individuals, but my observation is; 2020, we know that we dealt with increased anxiety, increased psychological distress. 2021, we very much grappled with the challenges around pandemic fatigue.

2022, we're moving to burnout. We're moving to burnout. Now, when we are managing burnout from a mental health perspective, that absolutely reinforces the fact that we need to do this long term.

Because of course, if somebody is in that burnout position, it's very much with our frontline workers. But more than that, many, many families and carers and others are experiencing it.

In terms of which groups have been most impacted, we know that young people, so young people and I would say young people really go up to the age of 25, pre-COVID, we were seeing increased rates of psychological distress and anxiety.

That's either been accelerated or exacerbated by COVID. So we're certainly looking at what's driving that, what's amplifying it? What is making it worse? But I think it is also fair to say that there is no Australian who's not impacted by this in this sense.

So whether we look at the demographics of our aged care, whether we look at our First Nations people, whether we look at our culturally and linguistically diverse people who may have challenges in coping with this. So we've got a long road ahead.


Acknowledging the points that Christine has made about the risks and challenges of mental health through the course of the pandemic, it's been one of the areas where we’ve most strongly focussed.

And perhaps one of our most heartening outcomes, but it's a job that's only half done, is that in 2020, the suicide rate actually went down in Australia, but it's still too high. And there are other accompanying issues that we know have generated anxiety the pandemic. The time away from school. It's a global phenomenon.

The mental health pandemic response has been one of the strongest and earliest in the world, and telehealth has been a fundamental part of that. But I think part of the antidote is the message that there are real signs of hope.

A record week of vaccinations from Monday to Friday, for any time in Australian history, not just the rollout. New South Wales health signalling the reaching and potential passing of the peak in New South Wales.

The fact that Australians can come home earlier and with easier options. And then finally, real support for mental health. And so if you haven't been vaccinated, this is your chance. If you're due for your booster, please come forwards.

And if you have children, there are over 1.8 million vaccines in the field, and we would encourage all parents to bring their children forward, whether it's through Commonwealth clinics, GPs, pharmacies or the many, many spaces that are available in state clinics.

Thank you very much, in particular to Alison, and to Christine, and to all of their teams, and to all of those who are helping to protect Australians. Take care.

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