There was a lot of criticism from the Royal College of GPs and other groups, saying why this stronger vaccine hasn’t been used. Is this a direct response to that criticism that came out after last year’s flu season?
With respect, I don’t think that’s a correct characterisation. There was one report by one journalist which was immediately rejected.
This is the first time that this vaccine is available. Brendan’s work and others has meant that we’ve been able to secure it for the same price.
It’s simply a case of, now that this new vaccine is available, and indeed Australia has helped drive that forward to ensure that it was available.
We had the best available around the world last year off the back of the World Health Organisation and Australian recommendations.
Now we’ve got the best available, but the real breakthrough is Australia having priority in securing those supplies because of the early work of the Chief Medical Officer.
Yeah, so I think it’s important to note that introducing these vaccines was a response to the poor protection we had in the elderly last year.
It wasn’t a response to any unwarranted or unjustified criticism. I don’t think the College of GPs made such a criticism, as the Minister said.
This was really, a technical advisor said we’re seeing a weaker and weaker response in the elderly, and we took advantage of the availability of these new vaccines and have had them fast-tracked in terms of their availability in Australia.
The two that are available for the elderly, what’s the difference between them? How do they work?
Well, they work in different ways. One, as I said, has a higher dose of what we call the antigen, the thing that stimulates the immune response, and the other one has, mixed with a standard dose of the antigen, a chemical called an adjuvant, which sort of tickles up the immune cells and makes them respond better to the standard dose. Both of them have been shown in studies to produce a stronger antibody response in the elderly compared to the standard vaccine.
Given the experience of what’s happening in the North American flu season, what might that tell you about what could happen here?
Well, I think the North American season is following our season from last year, as is the UK season.
I think we come first, we have the first New Years Eve parties, and so I think their flu season is probably experiencing what we experienced last year, which was an A strain particularly that was very significant.
So we’re hopeful that this year’s season, the one thing you can say about flu viruses is that they’re totally unpredictable and you never can tell what a flu season will be like, but in general, when you’ve had a bad season one year you tend to have more immunity in the population and you don’t have such a bad season the following year, but I can’t promise that.
In Japan they’re developing a drug that they think can kill the flu within a day. They’re still working to get it done with regulators, Japanese and US regulators. What are your thoughts on this progress in that field?
Well, there are lots of antiviral drugs in development. I would have to say, though, that the most exciting potential is to develop what’s called a universal flu vaccine.
The problem with the flu virus is it changes and mutates time and time again, so the vaccine that you’ve had one year may not protect you in the following year.
So what some researchers are doing is trying to look at parts of the flu virus that don’t change and make vaccines against that part, so if you had a flu vaccine with a universal vaccine, it would protect you for a long time against all of the viruses.
That’s probably the most exciting potential. There are certainly new developments in antiviral drugs around the world, and they’re also interesting, but the one you talked about has still got a long way to go before it’s in human use.
Do you have any idea as to why last year’s flu season was so bad, doubly as bad as the previous?
There are a couple of reasons. One, the protection from the vaccine in the elderly was not as good, partly because of the reason that we described, that they don’t produce an immune response, and we’ve noticed that waning over years.
The other important factor was that one of the viruses, particularly the one that affected the elderly, one of the A strains, did undergo a mutation during the season.
So it changed from the virus that was used to make the vaccines, so the vaccine, even in the younger people who had good immune response, weren’t as well protected against that.
That was an unusual shift and it’s being analysed very closely by the World Health Organisation. It’s an unusually significant shift in that year.
How can you guarantee that this flu season won’t be the same as last year’s?
No one can guarantee anything about flu seasons. We’re always on the lookout for flu that might come from animal vectors, like swine flu came.
We’re always closely monitoring bird flu around the world. Flu seasons are very unpredictable, all we can do is provide the best possible protection, which is what the Government is doing, and to monitor developments. But as I’ve said before, it’s generally unlikely you have two really bad seasons in a row.
For doctors that are calling for the flu vaccine to be free across the board, what’s your response to them?
So, what we do is we follow the advice of the medical authorities, and in particular the National Immunisation Program is a medically-driven program.
So, we have followed the advice, and I guarantee that we will follow 100 per cent of the advice, as we do with the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee.
If there’s a recommendation from them that it’s in the population’s interests to have a certain drug or vaccine listed, we will list it.
For your average punter, how much does it cost?
So, for everybody covered under the National Immunisation Program, it’s free. Beyond that, the drug would be available for between $11 and $20.
And just to clarify, the new shot, is that only available from April or can you get it sooner if you’re willing to pay?
So, April should be when the national supplies arrive.
Yes. We won’t have any supplies until April, and there’s no point getting vaccinated too early in the year.
The evidence would suggest that if you vaccinated in about April, or from April onwards, you get better protection in the flu season, which doesn’t really appear until June, July, August, September. So there’s no value in getting an early vaccination.
Just to clarify, that report in the Herald Sun last year that said that there was a vaccine available and you opted for the cheaper option, that’s incorrect?
That was debunked within 24 hours. In fact, it was debunked within 12. Both companies, Sanofi and Seqirus, rejected it, the Chief Medical Officer rejected it, and it was rejected by medical authorities around the country.
It was false, wrong, untrue, incorrect, and frankly embarrassing for the journalist.
Okay, thank you.