Canberra Press Conference with Minister Greg Hunt on funding into COVID protection measures, Omicron variant and vaccination booster program
Read the transcript of Minister Hunt at the Canberra Press Conference on 3 December 2021, on funding into COVID protection measures, Omicron variant and vaccination booster program.
The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Former Minister for Health and Aged Care
Good morning everybody. I’m delighted to be joined today by the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Paul Kelly.
I’m here to announce the update and extension of Australia’s COVID measures during the course of the next year, this is something which has been carefully planned by the National Security Committee and Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet based on the advice of the Chief Medical Officer.
And in addition to provide an update with regards to the vaccination program, Professor Kelly will outline both the latest advice from ATAGI and the latest advice in relation to the Omicron variant.
I am very pleased that as part of the ongoing management of COVID, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, through the National Security Committee and the Expenditure Review Committee have approved an additional $540 million investment in COVID protection measures.
These really cover four areas. Firstly, there is the extension of pathology measures, as has been planned and signalled previously. Secondly, there is support for our aged care sector. Thirdly, there is the work of the National Incident Centre.
I said in Parliament yesterday that the National Incident Centre is the nerve centre of Australia's response to COVID, and I want to thank all of the members of the Incident Centre.
Under Brendan's leadership and now Paul's leadership, they have worked tirelessly for over two years since the measles outbreak, and they have worked continuously and been stood up.
So, it’s becoming a permanent feature rather than a temporary response, in terms of Australia's approach to pandemics and major events.
And then finally, new research. $48 million of research funding, of which 33 million is for new programs, for treatments, antivirals, emerging research with regards to COVID, and $15 million for actual grants which have been approved through a peer reviewed competitive process, of which I think that one I would like to highlight is $3.3 million for Murdoch University to focus on the impact of long COVID.
So, as the world looks at and works through the impacts of COVID, there is the prevention, there’s the treatment, but there is also the long-term impacts, and we do know that long COVID is sadly a reality for many people, whether it is respiratory impacts, whether it is impacts in relation to their neurological acuity and their capacity, or whether it is in relation to their ability to function with full energy.
Things as simple as that, these are all part of the global work, but they are part of the Australian work.
Finally, I want to give a brief update, again, the vaccination program has continued. We are now 39.5 million doses, almost. We have reached 92.7 per cent of first doses, and 87.7 per cent of second doses.
South Australia has now reached 90 per cent. I spoke with the Premier of South Australia today to thank him and congratulate him on his work. He said that their system is strong, their hospitals are prepared, they are pleased to have been opening up and they know they will be cases, but this is part of the transition under the national plan.
So Australians are doing an amazing job. I just want to take this opportunity to thank them and encourage them. We have now reached 495,000 boosters, so the booster program is well ahead of schedule, but continuing apace.
And I think we will have some more advice on that from ATAGI, through the Chief Medical Officer, and an update in relation to the Omicron variant.
Thank you, Minister. So, just to talk about the boosters, first of all, I can announce today that
ATAGI, as we have discussed in recent weeks, has been looking at the booster program and made some very specific examinations of the booster program, in particular, whether it should be given earlier as has been the case in the UK.
So just as a reminder, at the moment, the ATAGI advice has been for six months- once people have reached a 6-month stage since their second dose, that they should have that booster. It’s really important now with the emergence of the Omicron variant, that we do go ahead and get that booster when people are due.
So, ATAGI looked at what was the evidence that we had, and I would highlight a couple of the issues they specifically looked at.
Recognising that the UK, for example, has gone to a shorter time period, they looked at that specifically, but they really looked at the evidence of why that should occur. And just a quote directly from them, there is no evidence to suggest at the moment that an earlier booster dose of the current COVID-19 vaccines will augment the protection against the Omicron variant.
In fact, there is very little evidence at the moment that shows that a shorter period between the primary course and the boosters, less than 20 weeks, is effective.
Now, there is one difference there, which is in relation to the immunosuppressed population, where that is seen as a third dose, and that can be given at a minimum of two months after the second dose.
But for the general population, the advice from ATAGI remains a six-month gap between that second dose and the booster program. So in summary, no change.
Just on the Omicron variant itself, we now have nine cases here in Australia, eight of those in New South Wales. We have seen some cases now that have been in the community, rather than directly into quarantine - the 7-year-old child in the northern suburbs- the north shore of Sydney as one.
There may well be more cases to come in Australia. We know that this is now spreading into other countries in the world. There are a total of 419 cases as of this morning in around 30 countries. So, we do know that it is transmissible.
There is no question about that, it is transmissible between people, it is transmitting in many countries. It has transmitted here to Australia.
We had a wonderful exchange of views last night in a two-hour meeting with our South African colleagues. I say exchange of views because they were very interested to hear about the success of our vaccination program. It has been a real challenge in South Africa, they have remaining high hesitancy, and indeed anti-vaccination views are quite strong in South Africa.
So, they wanted to talk to us about how we would address that here and how we had been so successful in our vaccine rollout as an international comparison. They also wanted to talk about mandating of vaccines, and they were working through that in South Africa.
From our side, of course, we were very interested to hear whatever they could share with us in relation to the Omicron variant. In particular, those three key questions that I have raised at previous press conferences.
Is it transmissible? They are no doubt that it is. It is definitely replacing Delta in South Africa as the main COVID-19 virus. Secondly, is it severe? They have no real evidence at the moment of an increase in severity.
They are seeing a rise in hospitalisations in one of their provinces - in Gauteng province, which is Pretoria and Johannesburg, large population, dense population. They are seeing a rise in hospitalisations there.
But even hospitalisations they are seeing with the Omicron variant are not any more severe than previous- in previous waves.
I would stress that it’s very early days. It is only in the last few weeks this has been circulating in South Africa and elsewhere, and there is that delay from cases to hospitalisations and deaths. So we remain, I remain cautiously optimistic, but we need further information.
On vaccine efficacy and treatment efficacy, so do the treatments and vaccines still work, South Africa unfortunately has a very low vaccination rate, and so for the time being, that is probably not where we will get that information from.
They are looking to grow the virus in the laboratory and start those tests, as we are here in Australia, but from their clinical and population point of health view, they were unable to enlighten us further compared with where we were.
We remain very actively engaged with the rest of the world. We’ve had meetings with the European CDC in the last 48 hours, with Japan, South Korea last week, and others today.
So we will continue to work with our international partners on these key questions and we will share that information when it comes to hand.
Great. Happy to take questions.
Minister, a number of diplomats representing African nations have criticised travel restrictions to the nine African nations. Why not just have testing upon arrival in Australia?
Look, I respect the views of many people, but our approach, from the very day we closed the border with China on 1 February in 2020, has been to follow the medical advice, and to take those difficult decisions.
And the medical advice which Professor Kelly and Brendan Murphy provided to the Prime Minister and myself on Saturday was on the balance of risks, and on the basis of a precautionary approach, to ban on a temporary basis on flights from the southern African nations, to ensure that it was only Australians who were returning home, that they would be subject to 14 days’ quarantine if they had been in that area.
We’ll continue to review the medical advice, but we followed it because it’s kept Australia safe.
And I have praised South Africa and I will do that again now. They have been very open, and as Paul said, last night there was a two-hour exchange of information, each country helping each other and South Africa has been very open and transparent. And we’re helping them and they are helping the world.
Follow up question sorry if I may.
If we are supporting travel bans, shouldn't we be acting on countries like the UK, where it’s now been revealed that they had cases of Omicron before countries like Botswana, for example?
So again, it’s about following the medical advice and if the medical advice changes, then we won’t hesitate to take it. That’s been a hallmark and our approach, to be fearless in our response.
And these can be difficult decisions. Right now, until 15 December, we have the current restrictions that are in place. That’s allowing the world to analyse the Omicron variant and in particular, for the three characteristics to which Professor Kelly referred, in terms of its transmissibility, its resistance, or its accessibility, in relation to the vaccines and the treatments, and then finally, its severity.
As Paul has said, he is cautiously optimistic and therefore, I am cautiously optimistic, off the back of that.
Thanks, Minister. Yourself and the Prime Minister have both been very bolshy in your language this week about, you know, keeping open up and keeping to the national and state plans.
Is that a bit premature given we don't yet know much about this variant? Should we maybe pause, you know, removing mask wearing or allowing larger gatherings?
So, I’ll say a little bit, and then on the medical side, I’ll turn to Professor Kelly.
In terms of the national plan, it’s always presumed that there would be variations and variants. I think AusTracker, if I'm correct, Paul, has almost 30,000 variations of sequencing which have been identified.
The variants, we’re now at the 13th major variant of concern as identified by the World Health Organization. So, this disease will not stop in its process of evolution and mutation.
The national plan is about a clear direction based on the fact we have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and one of the lowest losses of life, 92.7 per cent first dose as of today.
And so, it provides a direction, and vaccination and treatment together provide that pathway to keep us safe whilst opening up. But we did take a decision on Saturday which did represent a pause, and the WHO had made its decision overnight and we responded, literally within a matter of hours.
We started this pandemic by taking rapid, fearless decisions and we are going to continue to do that as required.
I note that South Australia has proceeded to open up. I spoke with Premier Marshall this morning, and he was confident in their health systems, in their processes. South Australia is reaching the 90 per cent level, they’ve just reached that level of vaccination.
So, we’re continuing to vaccinate, and continuing to follow the national plan. But where we've got to take tough decisions, as we did on Saturday, we’ll do that.
Paul, just on measures?
It’s also just to tricky time of year, you know, we’re coming into the holidays and people wanting to gather in large numbers. Does that concern you at all?
So, there is always a balance and I think the Minister’s answered that, really. But we gave our advice fearlessly and frankly, as we do, on Saturday, in relation to what we knew, what we don't know, when we are going to know it.
And so, on that precautionary principle, we looked at, where do we know that the virus is definitely circulating in larger numbers. Again, referring to our colleagues from South Africa yesterday, and this is publicly available knowledge, they have had a large, rapid increase in cases, particularly in Gauteng province, where they have over 6000 cases the day before yesterday.
About 70 per cent of those are lacking the S gene, which is the screening test we have now for this new virus from the PCR.
I mentioned the number of cases worldwide that have been reported in the hundreds, it is likely it is in the thousands in South Africa, and what we don't know in other parts of Africa is because they lack that surveillance system.
So, we made that precautionary approach on where we knew the problem was since- but I was very open to say that I think this will spread around the world quite quickly.
I suspect within the new months, Omicron will be the virus in the world. And so, we need to take that one step at a time.
Closing borders is a big decision. It’s a decision for government not taken lightly. We have all the other measures in place - test, trace and isolate - the public health and social measures, all of those matters we have and crucially, the vaccine, and we are one of the most vaccinated nations in the world right now.
And we have no evidence at the moment that the vaccine does not- you know, as far as we know, the vaccine works against this new virus.
On, if can I add another question? On that point, what was your estimate for how long it will take us to know some of these things about the virus given its rapid spread in Southern Africa?
And I know that the pharmaceutical companies are also doing tests to see if their vaccines are working against this. Do you know how long will that take as well?
So, they were the three key questions that the Minister outlined and I’ve talked about as well. Is it transmissible? Yes, it is. Is it more severe? We don't know yet but at the moment, there is the evidence that it is towards more mild or at least the same.
Vaccine efficacy, you’re right, both Moderna and Pfizer and other companies have announced that they are starting to look at, what they might do in terms of this- of developing a specific booster, for example, against this virus.
They have both- both those companies have committed to do that very fast, it’s one of the amazing things that we have with mRNA vaccines, we can- they can be tweaked very quickly and rolled out very quickly. So, if that was required, we have a way forward in terms of vaccines.
It relies very much on the virus being grown in laboratories. There are many, many laboratories, I would suggest, in all those countries that I mentioned that over 30 countries now with cases, they will be doing that work in the laboratory now.
Out here in Australia, both in New South Wales at the ICPMR and at the VIDRL lab in Melbourne, they are actively doing that work.
So, that will take time to grow the virus, it takes time but weeks or so, days to weeks for those preliminary laboratory tests.
In South Africa, the problem that we have is their low vaccination rate. And so, we're probably not going to get the answer from South Africa about how the vaccines work in that clinical and population setting. But there are other countries with the virus we’ll be watching very closely.
Great, thank you.
The Coalition of Epidemiologists, Business Council of Australia and foreign aid groups wrote to Government this week saying that we need to do- the Government to do more in terms of supporting vaccines globally because of the emergence of new strains like Omicron.
What is the Government actually going to be doing further? I know we agreed to donate 60 million doses from a pool of 280 million doses to purchase for Australia. Are we looking to increase those donations further?
I know we’ve also given money to COVAX, but are we doing enough? Are we doing enough, quickly enough?
Sure. Look, a very important question. Firstly, we do have a commitment of 60 million doses and an example is what we have done with Fiji, where we had spare capacity from the AstraZeneca production within Australia, we were able to provide that to Fiji. Fiji is overwhelmingly vaccinated to a very, very high level with Australian-produced AstraZeneca vaccine.
We are also looking at where there’s any spare capacity to make sure that doses are not expired, that they are made available if they’re not being used in Australia, that they made available to the region. I think a figure we’re at now is almost 9 million doses that have been provided. We are ahead of schedule, you know, between now and the coming weeks.
Then, secondly, we’re involved with direct funding to the region and then thirdly, to COVAX. So all up, we’re providing over $600 million and 60 million doses, but we’ll continue to review the needs and the supply.
And to make sure that, for example, if we don’t need something, we can defer the arrival of vaccines to make sure that they’re prioritised to the region. That’s something that Lieutenant General Frewen reviews on a weekly basis, our needs, and therefore the capacity to defer the arrival of vaccines.
We’re in a very strong place; we can meet right now, all of our primary, all of our secondary and all of our booster needs.
Just to give you a little bit of a sense going forwards, there are three major reviews that the TGA and then ATAGI are taking with regards to vaccines between now and the end of the year. One is the Pfizer paediatric doses for 5 to 11 – I’m hopeful within the next week we’ll have a decision from the TGA, and there are no red flags at this stage.
It’s heading in a positive direction, but they genuinely are fully independent. And they’ll provide that advice, ATAGI will then provide their response, and we’re hopeful that if we’ve got two green lights we would commence the children’s paediatric doses in the first part of January.
The second thing is the Moderna booster doses, and again that assessment is going on, and I understand it’s progressing positively. And I would hope by Christmas that we have an announcement on Moderna boosters- boosters, if not earlier.
And I’m due to get my booster in the next 10 days, so that might be a very good option to show that message, as Brendan and I did with AstraZeneca; Paul and the Prime Minister did with Pfizer.
And then finally, there’s Novavax, and the world is making very rapid progress on the assessment of Novavax. I’m hopeful that in the coming few days there might be the first of the international approvals for Novavax and the TGA is making very good progress.
And again, subject to their assessment, we are hopefully in a position that before Christmas, if they say yes, there would be an approval for Novavax, with a commencement in January.
I’m glad you mentioned Novavax, because that’s what I wanted to ask. Given that the preference that seems to be going forward is that the mRNA vaccine is the best for boosters and tackling variants, will Novavax – those 51 million doses – do you anticipate them actually being used in Australia, or will they be used to supplement the 60 million we’ve promised?
Well, we’re in a capacity to do both. There is certainly a significant group of Australians who have been saying that they would only take the Novavax.
Now, we encourage them to take any vaccine as early as possible, but we recognise that there are some who, for their own reasons, have said that they would be waiting for the protein vaccine. Don’t wait, but it is nevertheless coming.
On the capacity for different vaccines to be used as boosters, I’ll rightfully turn to Paul. And then all of the vaccines are very good for international use and that remains a possibility.
And so what happens there is that Operation COVID Shield assesses our needs, assesses our capacity, and they can either defer arrival in Australia, or assist with direct transfer overseas and to the region.
Paul, just on the emerging science around booster shots and the suitability of different vaccines.
Yeah, thank you Minister and thanks for the question. So firstly, just to reiterate, the best vaccine to get is the one that’s available for you now. Go and get you vaccine. If you have not been vaccinated, get it now. If you are due for a booster, get that now.
The only booster at the moment that has gone through all of the approvals in Australia is Pfizer, but as the Minister mentioned, Moderna may be close.
Novavax, we’ll wait and see, but there’s no theoretical reason why any of those vaccines cannot be used as a booster, but that’s a matter for the regulatory authorities and for ATAGI to assess.
Okay, I will just finish up there as we have Operation COVID Shield.
Sorry, just one brief question and then COVID Shield.
Sorry, one more question just from a colleague. Prime Minister Scott Morrison told ABC Radio Adelaide last week that Mr Antic was double-vaccinated.
Mr Antic refused to confirm whether he was fully vaccinated but has said that he has never said anything that would mislead the Prime Minister on any issue.
Do you think that Mr Antic mislead the Prime Minister, and do you know if he is unvaccinated? And if so, should he be allowed into Parliament?
Look, I don’t have personal details, that’s a very important role as Health Minister that I’m not privy to individual details.
I continue to encourage everybody to be vaccinated, and the rules for the Parliament are a matter for the presiding officers, the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House.
But I’ll continue to encourage everybody to be vaccinated around Australia.
Sorry, just one last quick one, Minister. The Pharmacy Guild is unhappy about Woolworths bidding for Priceline.
Do you have a position or any concerns about Woolworths potentially buying Priceline and the risk to the community pharmacy?
Look, I don’t have any details on that. I do believe very strongly in community pharmacy. We put together an $18.3 billion seventh community pharmacy agreement, worked through with the Pharmacy Guild and the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia
And the pharmacies have played an amazing role – over 2.3 million vaccinations they’ve given through the course of the vaccine program. And they’ll play I think an increasing role during the course of the booster program, so I want to thank them.
On the commercial matters, I don’t have details, I apologise, that would be one for the company and the regulators.
But I will take this opportunity to thank all of our doctors, nurses, pharmacists, pathologists for what they’ve done this year, all of our health workers. And I also want to say a special thanks to our signing team both here and in Victoria. Give yourself a big thank you.
And to say to Australians, there are lots of challenges, but of all the countries in the world, we have one of the highest vaccination rates and one of the lowest rates of loss of life, and one of the strongest economic recoveries.
We’re a great country. We’ve taken difficult decisions, but Australians have been magnificent. We know how to do this, we’ve got this, we’ll continue to get through this, and we will continue to flourish. Thank you very much.