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Canberra Press Conference, 28 January 2022, on TGA approved Pfizer vaccine to be used as a booster for 16 and 17 year olds

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt with Professor Alison McMillan at the Canberra Press Conference on 28 January 2022, on TGA approved Pfizer vaccine to be used as a booster for 16 and 17 year olds.

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

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Well, welcome everybody. I’m delighted to be joined today by Professor Alison McMillan, the chief nursing and midwifery officer of Australia. In particular, we want to address a number of things today. Firstly, is the TGA approval of Pfizer for children 16 to 18, young adults, to have the booster, that's an important development.

Secondly, is the message to continue to come and be vaccinated even if you have had Omicron.

And then thirdly, the fact we have now passed 49 million vaccinations in Australia and reached two-thirds of the eligible population for boosters who have come to be vaccinated, with children having now passed 820,000 vaccinations.

Another significant milestone overnight, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, Australia's medical regulator, has authorised the use of Pfizer for boosters for 16 to 18-year-olds. That's the first green light of a double green light process.

The next step is for the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, ATAGI, to consider and determine the recommended use, but if they say yes - and we're looking forward to their advice within the course of the coming week, if not earlier - then we will make these doses available immediately.

They are the same doses as the adult regime. They're widely available around the country, in general practice, Commonwealth clinics, state clinics, Indigenous medical clinics, and it's an important next step.

Significantly, this builds on the progressive opening of eligibility under the booster program, and what we are seeing on Monday, it is that this program will move from four months since your second dose to eligibility at three months. That's already begun in some state and territory clinics, but it will open that program up nationwide.

The next thing is that in particular, Professor McMillan will set out the advice with regards to what to do in relation to boosters if you have had Omicron, but the simple message is you still need to be boosted.

We want all Australians to come forward to be boosted and once you cleared your symptoms, then it's appropriate for you to come forward so long as you are eligible for your dose.

More generally, in terms of the vaccination program, we have now passed the 49 million mark. Yesterday, over 302,000 Australians came forward, and we’ve been running at close to 2 million a week, and these are rates which are seeing boosters being delivered at a higher daily rate than the absolute peak of the first and second doses.

Yesterday, for example, 232,000 people came forward for their boosters and we're now 7.3 million boosters or 66.6 per cent, precisely two-thirds of the eligible population in this point in time.

That's led to overall a 95.5 per cent first vaccination rate, one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. It's also led now to a second dose rate of 93.2 per cent.

Just in relation to our children, again, they're doing a fantastic job along with their parents. 46,000 doses yesterday. Approximately 820,000 doses amongst our children, one of the highest rates of childhood vaccination for 5 to 11s in the world.

The last thing I want to mention is that this week, we’ve started the concessional rapid antigen test access program. The numbers of participating pharmacies are now triple what we had expected

at this stage, approximately 2,300 pharmacies, and the number of concession cardholders - so pensioners, low income, healthcare card holders and others who have come forward - is well over double what we had expected in terms of both the number of individuals and the tests that have been dispensed for free.

That at this point in time is 380,000 people who’ve participated in the concessional rapid antigen test program, and that's delivered over 1.67 million. So one and two-thirds million rapid antigen tests have already been dispensed through this program, well over 400,000 a day on average.

So that's providing really strong additional support to the free access with over 60 million tests which has been provided through the healthcare system, the Commonwealth and state testing today.

So important steps forward and we are seeing decreasing rates of hospitalisation, of those in ICU and of those on ventilation.

With that, Professor McMillan.


Thank you, Minister. So, yes, as the Minister has said, we are seeing - as we’d anticipated and as the states and territories are announcing - now a reduction in the number of hospitalisations, the number of people in intensive care and those requiring ventilation.

But as we’ve seen during the two years of this pandemic, the number of deaths associated with those cases is- the numbers stay higher for a longer period. There is a delay in the number of deaths, and sadly we’ve seen number- quite a number of deaths reported by Victoria and New South Wales today.

And I want to say, again, that I, as a nurse, know very well the sadness that comes from the loss of a loved one, a friend. And these are just not numbers, they are people, Australians, many who have gave a great deal to Australia and to create the country we have today.

So my condolences do really sincerely go to all of those who have lost family and friends in this pandemic, and it's a salient reminder of the consequence of this pandemic.

As the Minister has said, yes, we are reminding, again, everyone of the importance of getting a booster shot. At the moment, the recommended time frame is four months after your second dose. But as of Monday, it's three months.

So really I am encouraging everyone that now, if you are eligible, you really should be making that appointment to get your booster. Both Pfizer and Moderna, of course, approved for vaccination as a booster.

There are often questions asked of us about, if I have had COVID or I think I’ve had COVID, do I really need to get boosted? And the answer is absolutely you do.

We know that an initial infection does potentially provide you with a small amount of protection from COVID, but we really don't yet know how much, but we do know that the booster will provide you with high levels of protection, particularly against severe disease and death.

So if you have had COVID recently or you think you had COVID, what our advice is and what the advice of ATAGI is: once your symptoms, once the runny nose, the headache, the sore throat, the aches and pains, all of those things have gone, then you can go and get your booster.

And there are appointments available right across the country. So as I say, once your- once those symptoms have gone, now, if you're eligible at three months as of Monday, you can go and get your booster.

Thank you, Minister.


Thanks very much. I'll start with the questions in room, starting on your left as you're looking out to the camera, please.


Hello Minister, it’s Chloe Bouras from Channel 10. I just wanted to clarify where we're at with assessing Novavax for boosters?

And I know there are a lot of people who are waiting on that to be approved for their primary course. Do you imagine there’ll be a lot of people waiting on that for their booster even if they already had Moderna, Pfizer or AstraZeneca?

And can you also just confirm what the booster interval thinking is around for 16 to 17-year-olds?


Sure. So firstly in relation to the booster interval, Chloe, for 16 to 17-year-olds, it's exactly the same. So, currently it's four months. It moves to three months as of Monday. So no difference from the rest of the adult population on that front.

In relation to Novavax, at this point they have not put in an application for booster status, but I spoke with the company last week, they are intending on doing that. We don't have a time frame from them yet but we're encouraging them to do that at the earliest possible time.

We are now about to begin the process of batch-testing the Novavax early arrivals in Australia, and as I say, we're planning on that batch-testing process, the arrivals, the distributions, and so Novavax being available as a primary course from the 21st.

But please do not wait for this as a booster. The company has not applied as of yet. They do intend to apply, and so we don't have a time frame on that.

The critical thing is, any vaccine which has been approved by the TGA and ATAGI is a recommended vaccine, and we know that the lesson is do not wait.

But Novavax has indicated that they'll be applying for booster status, whether it's for the third or if a fourth shot were required for immunocompromised or other people.

Next, please.


Minister, it’s Anna Henderson from SBS. I just wanted to get your assessment of this open letter today from Central Australian Congress and AMSANT saying that the COVID outbreak there is rapidly escalating and that they need an immediate lockdown of Central Australia to stop the spread.

Do you think there's a good justification for that? And what are your concerns about what's happening there?


Sure. So, look, firstly, we’ve been working with Indigenous Australia through the land councils and the Northern Territory government on what's called a double green light, same principle as the vaccine approvals for any restrictions of movement in and out of communities, and so we followed that process right through.

We’ve applied a series of biosecurity orders in relation to movements in and out of communities following that double green light. It is absolutely critical that there is the consent, endorsement, and approval of those communities that may be affected. That's been a principle we’ve upheld throughout and the endorsement of the Northern Territory Government.

So where we have that joint support, then we have put those biosecurity declarations in place and we're continuing to do that. In relation to Indigenous Australia, one of the things I think that’s very important is that we’ve seen a significant uplift in Indigenous Australian vaccinations and also in boosters.

The Indigenous vaccination rate around the country now is 81.5 per cent, and the Northern Territory has done a great job in lifting the number of vaccinations across the Territory.

Next, please.


Sorry, Minister, if I could just clarify. These groups say they're hitting what they call a brick wall when they try to ask for help from the Territory government. So if you're liaising with the Territory government, they're saying the Territory government isn't acting.

And my specific question was, do you think there’s a justification for an immediate lockdown because they’re so worried about how far this is spreading?


So, our primary care team reviews every day, but we do this in conjunction with the Territory government, but also very specifically Indigenous communities right across the Territory and the land councils. And so we’re liaising on a daily basis with them.

I respect and understand that even within communities there will be differing views, but by going through the peak representative bodies for those communities, that’s the absolutely critical step in ensuring that we have the support and the endorsement.

And so our position has always been that we would only put in place restriction movements with the consent of the traditional owners in the Indigenous communities, and we’ve done that right throughout and we’ve actually put in place a great number of biosecurity and declarations and orders during the course of the recent two months.

Okay, next please.


Yes, Alex Mitchell from Australian Associated Press. For the Professor, why is that death rate staying higher for longer than sort of expected? Is there a particular problem that needs to be addressed in that respect?

And just on getting boosted after having COVID, the advice coming out of New South Wales this morning was seemingly to wait four to six weeks. You're saying as soon as your symptoms have cleared to go and get that booster shot. What's right?


Okay. So firstly, we’ve always, throughout the pandemic as numbers have increased, we always see a delay in deaths, that's how it takes time as someone becomes unwell, critically unwell, and sadly then passes away. So you would expect to see that and that's normal.

As I said before, every death is very sad and we express the condolence in relation to that. These numbers are not every- you know, they are across a range of ages. Obviously, those are chronic disease, the elderly, are more susceptible. But that’s not solely who is sadly passing away.

This Omicron and COVID can take victims across the entire population. So the numbers we continue to monitor, as I say, and we do expect it has anticipated this.

Secondly, I’m quoting the advice provided by ATAGI. ATAGI’s advice, which is currently on their information, is that it’s reasonable once your symptoms have abated that you can go ahead and get your booster.

So I am using the ATAGI advice. One would need to ask New South Wales Health why they may differ from the ATAGI advice.


Next please.


ABC News. Just wondering whether you think in terms of boosters it’s inevitable that workplaces will require a three dose vaccine policy to consider someone fully vaccinated?


So, firstly, in relation to the definitions. Again, we follow ATAGI, so the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, they are the official national advisory body with regards to vaccine policy. That’s an item that is being considered, so I won't pre-empt.

Either way, we want to encourage everybody to come forward for their booster, and fortunately they are. Now over 7.3 million Australians and over 200,000 a day, including 232,000 just yesterday.

So at a higher rate than the highest first and second dose days during August, September, and October. So that's, I think, a really strong sign. But the simple message is, do not wait.

Right now, we have the Omicron wave, and whilst those numbers are down – pleasingly down – exactly as Alison has set out, we know that a proportion of people, even though it's a significantly lower proportion, will be hospitalised, faced ICU or ventilation, and some will sadly and agonisingly pass away. So do not wait.

So on the boosters, and in terms of the situation, it will be up to individual states and territories or workplaces if they seek to impose an extra requirement. And last question, please.


Minister, Rod McGurk from the American Associated Press. The top director of the World Health Organisation in the Western Pacific has been accused of racist, unethical, and abusive behaviour that's undermined efforts to contain the pandemic in our part of the world.

The allegations were made by current and former staffers and internal complaints against Dr Takashi Kasai.

Are you aware of this, and are you confident that the WHO's processes will be able to resolve this?


Sure. So, look, prior to this morning I was not aware of it. And so I'm meeting with my department shortly after this press conference and one of the agenda items is to seek a briefing and advice. Where we’ve had disagreements or differences with the WHO we’ve been very plain about it.

We disagreed with the early advice which did not want borders closed. We closed our borders to China, which was one of the fundamental decisions that kept Australians safe at a time when there was no vaccine.

We declared this as a pandemic well before the WHO and we closed all our borders

internationally at a time when the WHO was not advocating for such things. So, we’ll have our respective agreements.

Generally, they have done a great job in helping lower income countries both with pandemic and non-pandemic related issues. On this one, I apologise. I don't have any additional details other than what I read in the papers this morning.

I’ll seek our briefing and if we have any matters of concern we will raise them directly with the WHO, but we will be asking the WHO for independent advice as to the nature and response to these claims.


Do you have confidence in their internal processes to cope with this? Or do you think it will take another form of investigation?


I think the recent history of the WHO is that it would be valuable to have external oversight of any significant claims such as this.


Another for the Professor, sorry. Just on 16 and 17-year-olds being eligible for the booster. What are we seeing in terms of cases, do they make up a big portion of, you know, cases still coming through?


Yes, the younger generation are a proportion of the cases we are seeing. They’re very mobile, they interact very frequently.

We all know the challenges that we face with getting our younger people to wear masks, to follow the sort of things we ask of them with social distancing and all of those requirements.

So, yes, we are seeing cases in younger people. Pleasingly, we don't see them, obviously, in higher numbers being admitted to hospital and such like, but there are rare occasions where we do see younger people.

But definitely, we know that the younger generation can be the spreading. So it's really important that parents recognise that if their younger people have got symptoms, that they keep them home and particularly cognisant of not exposing the elderly members of their family or those at risk if younger people do have symptoms.

I know they’re often hearing people say that this is a mild disease and you shouldn't worry, but you should and you should make sure that you do all you can to protect others so you don't infect others.


Can I clarify something there as well, if in Central Australia the local health authorities are classifying this outbreak as a crisis, has that been discussed in a public health level- at a federal level by your team and how concerned are you?

Because there seems to be a disconnect between what's being said on the ground and how this is being treated from I suppose a national level. What do you know about the spread of COVID in Central Australia at the moment?


So what I can reiterate is what the Minister has just said. That we meet on a very regular basis with the Northern Territory government, and the peak bodies and the Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people in Central Australia. We are working very closely.

We are also very cognisant of working through local leadership and the importance of hearing and listening to what local leadership tell us about how we need to approach this.

We do know that unfortunately there is some spreading of misinformation amongst our vulnerable communities and we are doing everything we can to provide culturally appropriate, culturally sensitive information to our Aboriginal people in order that they can help understand the importance of what they need to do to keep themselves and others safe, the importance of vaccination, and all of those things.

So there is an enormous effort underway to work at a very local level, and a regional level, and, of course, at a state and national level and that is including my connection with the CATSINaM, who are the Congress of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses and Midwifes, who are often, and frequently, right on the ground and close to populations and can give us really incredible intelligence around that.

And so they are a really useful way that government, through me and my team, can also understand how we can approach trying to suppress the spread in local communities.

Thank you.


Can I just quickly ask on 16 and 17-year-old, the booster shot, is there some sort of expected date for that? Are we talking about weeks, months, we’re obviously waiting on that ATAGI advice, but would you expect it to be a matter of weeks or months?


Sorry, I missed the first part of the question, apologies.


Just the booster shot for 16 and 17-year-olds, obviously waiting on that ATAGI advice, but just, what- do have you some sort of expected date at this point?


So we are hoping to receive the ATAGI advice within the next week if not earlier. And if that's a positive then we can make this available immediately. It's the same vaccine in the same quantity, it's available widely.

We have had millions of doses distributed that are available being drawn on daily so if we receive advice then it will be authorised for approval the next day.

Above all else I just want to say thank you to everybody for coming forwards. It is a challenging time, but the fact that Australians have been stepping forward in record numbers to be vaccinated, in record numbers for boosters, as well as children with one of the highest children vaccination rates in the world.

What that says is that we always knew we were a great vaccination nation, but we really are one of the world’s leading vaccination countries.

Thank you and take care.


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