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Doorstop interview about COVID-19 vaccine rollout; Australia-New Zealand travel bubble.

Read the transcript of the press conference with Minister Hunt in Melbourne on 8 April the with an update on COVID-19 vaccine rollout; Australia-New Zealand travel bubble.

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

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Good afternoon everybody. I’m here to provide an update on COVID cases, the COVID vaccine rollout, and also just an update on the safety and regulatory processes, steps taken and steps to be taken with regards to the latest international and domestic advice.

In regards to cases, it’s again another fortunate day of zero cases of community transmission of COVID-19 nationwide. That now makes 58 days this year and 59 per cent of days during the course of 2021.

We are reminded of the global comparison, where there has been an extraordinary 668,000 cases worldwide in the last 24 hours and agonisingly over 15,200 lives lost. That, in fact, takes it now to more than 50 million cases globally in 2021 and over a million and 83,000 lives lost in 2021.

We have also reached the 16 million mark for tests and I want to thank Australians for coming forward, continuously. When we saw the recent outbreak in Queensland, we had very significant numbers in New South Wales, in Queensland, and to all of those Australians who came forward, thank you for that and to everybody involved in the testing process, thank you.

With regards to the vaccination program, Easter Wednesday, as it was yesterday, 75,811 doses of vaccine administered. A national total now of 996,145 doses administered. At the state level, 509,802 doses; at the Commonwealth level 486,343 doses, including over 361,000 through primary care and 125,260 through aged care.

In particular, with regards to our aged care facilities, what we have now is a thousand aged care facilities exactly that have received first doses, and 435 that have received second doses. So, I think all of that progress is very significant.

I particularly also want to address, obviously Australia has been part of the global assessment process with regards to safety. And our first priority through all of the phases of COVID has been safety and following the medical advice.

We already have had updates from ATAGI, which is the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, and the Therapeutic Goods Administration and the Chief Medical Officer with regards to additional advice relating to the AstraZeneca vaccine. That has already occurred. That's been an ongoing process.

Now with the additional advice overseas from the European Medicines Agency, which is their equivalent of our Therapeutic Goods Administration; the UK MHRA, which is their equivalent of the Australian TGA; and their JCVI, their equivalent of our Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation.

We have asked the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation here in Australia to review and provide advice. That advice will go to the chief health and medical officers of Australia, the body chaired by Professor Paul Kelly, the Chief Medical Officer, and also at the same time the TGA or the Therapeutic Goods Administration is considering the latest advice from overseas.

That will all come through to government. And as the Prime Minister indicated this morning, that will be discussed at a health ministers meeting this evening and National Cabinet with all of the states and territories and their leaders and the Prime Minister tomorrow.

So, that's the process that we're taking. Already significant steps have been taken with the updated advice from the TGA and, in particular, from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation.

Our task here is very simple. It's always been - and this is what's kept Australia safe - to follow and seek the medical advice and to put safety above all else, and I want to thank all those Australians who have come forward at part of the testing and vaccination program.

I would be happy to take any questions. I will start with those, if I may, who are on the phone and then come to those that are in the room. I think Natasha from The Australian?


Thank you very much Minister. I understand this may not be provided prior to National Cabinet, do you have any indication whether Australia will follow the UK's example and restrict the vaccine to the under 30s especially considering that, for low exposure, according to the UK information, young people aged 20 to 29 only have a 0.8 per cent risk of being admitted to ICU with COVID, whereas a 1.1 per cent risk of serious harm due to the vaccine?

Doesn't it make sense to follow the UK given the risk-benefit ratio?


Sure. So, these are matters that are being considered by the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, the TGA and also the Chief Medical Officer's panel, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, and so we haven't received that advice yet.

And when that advice comes, we’ll consider it. And our commitment is to follow that medical advice. So, respectfully, not pre-empt their decisions.

I will say one thing. I did send via our Chief Medical Officer last night a very clear point to the Australian Technical Advisory Group, that they should make their considerations independently. They should make their decisions based on their best judgement of the balance of safety for Australians and that they should do so fearlessly.

We are blessed to have what I believe is arguably the world's finest regulatory and safety advisory processes and institutions in Australia, and we will be following their advice. Tom?


Thanks for taking our questions. Just a couple of quick ones, if I may?

Firstly, acting Victorian Premier James Merlino said this morning that the states have the capacity to do more in the rollout. Are you willing to change the rules about which government is responsible for which cohort in the rollout so that state-run sites could potentially be vaccinating - you know, people over the age of 70 or aged care workers that the federal government has so far been responsible for?

And just sort of related to that, Professor Ben Cowie who is leading Victoria's rollout also spoke this morning about concerns he had about a lack of doses at vaccination sites in parts of Melbourne that were particularly hard hit by the pandemic last year. Is that a concern for you? And how will that be resolved?


Sure. Look, firstly, with regards to the roll of the states, the partnership agreements that we've struck with the states and territories precisely included the option for when they feel that they have reached a point that they can expand the range of people that can be included.

That that was sought by the Commonwealth, contemplated from the outset and included in the partnership agreements. And indeed some states are already doing that. And so that's, I think, a very heartening development.

I have previously indicated to the Victorian Minister that when Victoria feels that they are ready to expand beyond health workers to other members of the 1B cohort, that's already in the agreement, we would fully support it, fully welcome it and embrace it. I think that's positive.

Then in terms of distribution, what we see is that already, by the end of this week, we'll have approximately 3000 sites right across Australia with Victoria having a proportionate site.

Every general practice which has, every general practice that's accredited has been invited to apply. And of those that applied and met all the requirements, 98 per cent accepted, and that's common across all the states and territories.

If there are any areas that there are concerns about, I would be happy to look at them. We put in place additional Commonwealth clinics, or respiratory clinics, and the states are encouraged if they identify any areas. But I haven't had any put to me at this point in time. I'm not aware that my department has, although I would have to check.

Because of the breadth of the general practice rollout, right across the country, areas are being covered, but if there are any specific areas where practices may not have applied, then we would be very happy for state clinics to be set up. That's always been part of the approach.

I do note that there was some question, although I think that may have faded slightly, about the distribution of deliveries in Victoria.

I can confirm, if you just hold, that last week for this week, Pfizer doses were delivered on the 26March, AstraZeneca doses on 30 March, Pfizer doses on 1 April. And this week for next week, AstraZeneca doses have been delivered on 8 April, which is today, Pfizer doses for next week on 9 April, tomorrow and already, we’ve booked in the first of next week’s deliveries to Victoria. AstraZeneca doses on 14 April, all in line with the agreed 12-week plan and distribution.

Okay. So, if I may go now to Tom McIlroy.


Thanks, Minister. How concerned are you about a chipped confidence in the vaccine rollout from the blood clotting issue?

And if there is a recommendation for people under 30 to receive a different vaccine, how significant would that be in a change to the rollout plan? Do we have capacity to do it if it's recommended?


So, one of the important things is that Australia has gone through full safety and regulatory assessments. I remember there was a debate in early January and indeed, even in late December, where some commentators and others were recommending that we effectively skip that full regulatory and safety process.

I could not be more confident in our regulatory processes and I could not be more strongly of the view that the right thing to have done was to have gone through - albeit at the fastest pace possible - the full safety and regulatory assessments.

That's one of the hallmarks of what Australia has done throughout the pandemic and that process is what provides confidence to Australians. I said that at the time and if there are variations, then there are variations.

You know, where already seen advice provided by ATAGI and the TGA and our approach here is to give the regulators and the medical advisors the confidence to make their own judgements freely. Not to second guess, but to be able to say: this is what we think is the right medical advice.

And that was my one task over the weekend and, again, in the last 24 hours and via the Chief Medical Officer to say we want you to give your advice, fearlessly and frankly. And if they provide age restrictions or other variations, we'll do it. We'll adopt it.

I think it is important to remember two of the biggest decisions that we've taken; the closing of the borders with China over a year ago now, that was an almost unthinkable action at that time. We were, along with one or two others, amongst the absolute first in the world to do this.

I can think of Taiwan and the United States and there may have been others. But, I'm not aware. And yet, we did it on the basis of medical advice. Equally, when the highly effective and highly safe University of Queensland molecular clamp was found to have the capacity to provide false positives for HIV, without ever risking HIV. But, therefore, creating a health challenge for the country and a possibly risk to confidence, we also followed the medical advice and took those decisions.

These are difficult moments for government but we haven't hesitated in taking those difficult decisions. So, that's what we'll continue to do.

If I can ask Madura from the Courier-Mail? Then to those in the room. Thank you, you're being patient.


Hey Minister, thank you. A few questions. So, you’ve just mentioned that depending on the medical advice, if it is required we could start giving under 30s the AstraZeneca.

In that situation, should Australia have had more vaccine contracts for different vaccines, so that we could have given different jabs to those under that age?

Also, in relation to the death of an aged care resident in Queensland, what further information do you have on that and whether or not there are any links at this stage to the vaccination and when we will know the results of that investigation?

And in terms of mass vaccination centres between New South Wales and Victoria, starting them up, of course, supply is a problem at the moment. But, is there, would you support the state and territories planning for a future mass rollout by getting mass vaccination centre planned to be ready now?


Alright. So, I will try to run through those three things. Again, and I think this is very important; we contracted for 150 million vaccines for a population of 25.5 million. Knowing, of course, that there's virtually no circumstance where infants would be inoculated. So, that is enough vaccines for every Australian three times over.

And of those, we were able to replace the University of Queensland vaccines and we have been able to ensure there is a very strong supply of Pfizer, of AstraZeneca, and of Novavax. And in addition to that, we also have access to 25 million vaccines through what's called the COVAX facility, which is an international purchasing arrangement across a range of potential vaccines.

But, what we have done is we have followed scrupulously the medical advice on which vaccines and the amounts that we need. And so, where they have suggested more, we've acquired more.

The contracts have been built in such a way as we were able to exercise those options in December, for example, when the decision was taken on medical advice not to proceed with the University of Queensland molecular clamp. So, that's been a medically driven process, but our job is to move rapidly and to get those agreements which we have done.

The second thing is in terms of aged care, there's been a statement from the Department of Health through - with regards to the Chief Medical Officer's position on aged care and I will just read the first paragraph, if I may? Sadly, more than 1,000 people pass in aged care every week. It is inevitable, as the Head of the TGA has noted, that this will include people who have been recently vaccinated.

As that happens, then if there are cases that follow, then they are investigated. The advice that we have is that there is no evidence, no sign or no hint of any causal link at this stage. Sadly, an elderly person has passed, but very sadly they are one of a thousand that pass. By definition, given the scope and scale of the number of Australians who have been vaccinated in residential aged care every week, precisely as the head of the TGA warned before the program, there would be those that pass who would, in any event, pass.

So, there are no cases that have been identified to this point in time, where there has been that consequence. But, wherever there is a reported case it's investigated. So, I will leave that to the authorities, both Queensland and Commonwealth. The vaccine operation centre has an adverse effects unit which investigates cases reported to it, they are doing that. The preliminary advice - I do stress the preliminary advice is of no causal link at this stage.

I would respectfully say that we have to be very careful when there are sadly, inevitably and agonisingly a thousand people who pass in aged care every week, that drawing the causal link after an event such as that is something we have to be very, very careful about. And that’s something all the authorities have emphasised, particularly the Chief Medical Officer and particularly the head of the TGA.

Then, in terms of mass vaccination clinics, to be very clear, right from the outset we have said to the states and we have encouraged them to look at different options. In addition to the general practice network, general practice network is how we vaccinate Australians every year.

Our approach is GPs plus and that is GP, plus the larger Commonwealth clinics, which are around the country with over 100 in operation and the state clinics and they are free, and encouraged to pursue those under the existing national partnership agreement as and when they feel that they are in a position to do that.

Now, I’ll come to those in the room who have been very, very patient.



Victoria was meant to receive an allocation of 40,000 COVID vaccines from the Federal Government this week that never arrived. How are we going to ensure that this doesn’t keep happening, even with our biggest backer, the AstraZeneca vaccine being produced by CSL, and that’s facing issues of its own.

We’re not given transparency around how many jabs will be coming out that factory every week, and they won’t tell us when they’re going to reach that target of 1 million doses?


With respect, that’s incorrect on every front. I ran through the figures Victoria has received over the recent weeks. It’ll be a matter for them to indicate how many, because each state has indicated very strongly, as you’re aware, that they would prefer to identify how many doses they’ve received.

But Victoria last, last week, on the 26th of the 3rd, they received Pfizer- full Pfizer allocation; on the 30th of the 3rd, received a full Pfizer allocation for this week; on 1 April, received a full Pfizer allocation; and the 8th, today, is receiving a full Pfizer allocation- AstraZeneca allocation for next week; and, tomorrow, is receiving a full Pfizer allocation; and next week, the first of the deliveries has already been booked in of a full AstraZeneca vaccine, full AstraZeneca dose plan.

All is according to the 12-week plan, all has been delivered; so, that report this morning was incorrect.

Then, in terms of the amounts. I ran through yesterday, the amounts with CSL, as at this point, and I'll just repeat exactly what I said yesterday, we’ve received for clearance by the TGA, 1.3 million doses, and they have been received and cleared in the same day, on the same day, and distribution has begun.

And then that means that as we go forwards with regards to CSL, we're also seeing 470,000 doses, approximately, which are expected to be provided to the TGA for that safety assessment over the coming days; and next week, 480,000 early in the week; and late in that week, 670,000, which would make over a million next week. Or if that safety process proceeded early to the following week, it would be the million in the following week.

So those are the exact figures that we have set out previously which I'm happy to re-emphasise today. So those figures couldn't be clearer or more open.


So Victoria’s Health Minister was mistaken when he said that those weekly doses haven’t arrived?


Those are the exact dates of the figures, and I'm not aware that they are in dispute.


Minister, thank you. Just in terms of the impasse with the EU, is the Commonwealth looking at other avenues to secure the vaccine? As well as talking to the manufacturers like Moderna and Johnson & Johnson? Where are those negotiations?


Sure. So with regards to the 3.8 million doses - 700,000 of the AstraZeneca international doses have been received. The 3.1 million, we have approached the EU again to seek the release of the full 3.1 million given that the European Commission spokesperson yesterday had indicated there may not be the barriers that they’d previously said.

We have had, for some period now, formal, very clear requests from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, and myself to our EC counterparts seeking the release of a million doses for PNG for humanitarian purposes. There has still been no response or release from the EC in relation to that. We're seeking, not just that million, but the full 3.1 million.

We will work through AstraZeneca to see that they have other options to supply it. At this stage, we have not been counting that 3.1 million in our forward inventory.

And then, with regards to the overall program, as I mentioned we have enough doses, approximately, for three times over the entire population. But where there is medical advice from the vaccines taskforce led by Professor Murphy, then we will seek additional doses if that's what they recommend.


Well, have you got a date when all Australians be fully inoculated with both jabs?


Well, the advice - and again, it's subject to anything which the Technical Advisory Group recommends - but the advice at this stage has not changed on first doses by the end of October.

Again, we'll continue, as we always do, to adapt. And the second doses follow at a period of three weeks for Pfizer and 12 weeks for AstraZeneca.


If the under 30s are deemed to not to, from a health opinion, take the AstraZeneca vaccine, will that necessitate procurement of a different vaccine?


Well, we have significant doses of Pfizer and Novavax. We have 20 million Pfizer, which are due in Australia during the course of 2021 - we have reconfirmed that with the head of Pfizer Australia. I spoke directly with the Australian CEO of Pfizer, Anne Harris, in the last 24 hours, and she has reconfirmed Pfizer's advice that those full 20 million doses would be available during the course of 2021 on their current plan and current schedule.

I've got to say, they have been utterly reliable in their delivery volumes and delivery dates.

And we also have Novavax. And again, I've spoken with the International Executive Vice-President of Novavax in the last 24 hours and they have indicated that the first of their doses, subject to clinical trials and subject to regulatory approval - so I think it's always important to put that in place - that the first of their doses are due in quarter three of this year.

They have not yet provided us a time or schedule for that because they are going through those processes. But that was the latest advice. Go on, one last.


If there was a case in New Zealand outside of their hotel quarantine program, or their isolation program, does that require a rethink of travel bubbles with that country?


Look, New Zealand has an outstanding record. New Zealand has been a global exemplar with regards to the way that they are managing COVID.

And we have always said that the first ring of containment in Australia, and it's the same in New Zealand – although they might frame it differently – is the quarantine program. But that quarantine program, even the best in the world - and I think across our two countries we are very, very close to that - even the best in the world is not an immunity bubble, that there will be additional leakage from that - whether it's a breath, a touch; whether it's a surface - and that's why you then have testing and tracing and distancing. And we know that they take very strong action.

AHPPC routinely reviews any cases, and if they think that there would be a threat then they are empowered to provide the advice and then the Chief Medical Officer of Australia will make the decisions with regard to the Government of if they were any charge.

At this stage, we have no advice of any need for change, but again, they have- we have confidence as a Government in the New Zealand Government's approach. And- But we have full independence and authority, which we provided to the Chief Medical Officer to provide frank and fearless recommendations. And so where we've had to take steps, we have.


And your full confidence in Victoria’s hotel quarantine which reopens today?


I am confident that their systems are strong; continuous improvement. I'm pleased that the hotel quarantine system in Victoria is reopening. It means more Australians can come home earlier. Thank you very much, everybody.

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