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Doorstop interview about the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine and an update on the travel bubble with New Zealand

Read the transcript of a press conference with Minister Hunt and Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Paul Kelly, in Canberra on 15 February about the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine, and an update on the travel bubble with New Zealand.

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

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Thank you everyone for joining us today. I’m joined by Professor Paul Kelly, the Chief Medical Officer who will provide briefings in relation the situation in Victoria as well as the latest news in New Zealand.

The Eagle has landed. I am pleased to be able to tell Australians that shortly after midday, the first shipment of Pfizer vaccines arrived in Australia.

They have touched down, they are currently being secured, and the advice that I have is that 142,000 doses have arrived in Australia.

They will now be subject to security, quality assurance, in particular to ensure that temperature maintenance has been preserved throughout the course of the flight, to ensure the integrity of the doses, and to ensure that there has been no damage. Further advice on that will be available in the coming days.

Batch testing of some of the doses will be undertaken by the TGA, but subject to that, we will then, on the advice of Professor Murphy's vaccines advisory committee, make sure that 62,000 doses are provisioned for second doses, and for continuous dosing in the event that there was an issue in subsequent weeks, although we’ve planned for, but we're not anticipating any such issues, but provisioning for that second set of doses is very, very important.

It’s something that not only the makers but the TGA, and very significantly, Professor Murphy's committee have focused on.

That means we will be releasing, after all of these processes have been completed, approximately 80,000 doses for the first vaccines to commence in Australia on Monday the 22nd of February.

Approximately 60 per cent of those doses will be allocated to the states, that will be 50,000 units, and that means they well be able to begin with their priority for hotel quarantine, they will also be focusing on other border related workers, those that are most likely to come into contact with positive international arrivals.

That has been recognised by the states and territories, and we agree with this, as the greatest risk of bringing the disease into the country.

They will also be focusing on their residential care within elderly Australians that are within the state systems and the territory systems, and also on their frontline healthcare workers who have been such an amazing support to Australians.

The Commonwealth will have approximately 30,000 doses which will be made available to aged care facilities. There will be a mix in the first week of rural and urban, every state, every territory, and further details will be made available later this week, once we’ve confirmed the ability of individual facilities to be ready next week.

That means that we are expecting that by the end of February, probably 60,000 of those doses will have been administered.

We have to allow for the time taken to be administered, for any issues that occur along the way, we have to be realistic, at some point, there will be a vial which is dropped.

There will be other elements that will occur. We just want to put all of these into perspective that the normal course of human activity will occur during the course of the vaccine rollout.

But I have to say, the states and territories are magnificently prepared and I want to thank all of them for their work. The aged care facilities are doing great work in preparation. The supply chain companies are all playing their part, and then of course the vaccine manufacturers are doing their work, as well as the TGA, the Health Department, the advisory committees. And I also particularly want to thank my office which has worked unstintingly over the course of the last year.

In addition to that, the next step will be, that we will see AstraZeneca, subject to a decision by the TGA in the near future, and if that is a positive decision, then shipping will occur. And that should see a doubling of the number of doses per week by early March, if not earlier, but early March is our current guidance.

That means that phase 1 is on track for what is likely to be a six-week rollout for first of doses, and in addition to that, we then have from late March the CSL AstraZeneca production, and I can announce that the first vials are being manufactured and filled today in the CSL Parkville plant.

That advice has been provided to us, and so that’s another important step in protecting Australians.

That will see a million doses a week, a million doses a week, commencing in late March made available, and that should see 2 million doses arrive before the end of March, and thereafter continue at a million doses per week.

The rollout, we have already said, but just to remind everybody, five stages, stage 1A commences with our elderly and disability care residents and their carers and staff. Secondly, as part of 1A, we have our hotel quarantine and Border Force workers, and others who are engaged in that international facing role, and our frontline health workers.

Phase 1B, will focus in particular on an age based approach - the over 80s, the over 70s, the immunocompromised, Indigenous Australians over 55 and then certain critical workers.

Phase 2 is the over 60s, the over 50s, in phase 2A, and then after that we will have other potential critical workers and Indigenous Australians under the age of 55, and over the age of 16. And then finally, in the general population, the balance will be in phase 2B.

And subsequently, if the world, through its work determines that children should be vaccinated through appropriate clinical trials with guarantees of safety, then we would move to children in phase 3.

Finally, I want to say in relation to Victoria, we know that one case has been announced. Any case is a challenge, but the fact that after this period of time it is only one case, it is a very important milestone.

There are zero cases of community transmission in the remaining seven states and territories in Australia, and Professor Kelly will give you additional detail in relation to that.

Very importantly, over the weekend testing rates were extraordinarily high. This morning's reported figures are 63,500 tests across Australia, including 25,000 in Victoria and 13.7 million tests now cumulatively Australia-wide.

At the same time, we see the world is at 108.7 million cases, and very sadly, approximately 2.4 million lives lost. So we have yet to lose our life and we hope it remains that way in Australia during the course of 2021.

Today is an important day, it’s the next step in an important plan based on safety, and this is about protecting Australians.

Professor Kelly?


Thank you, Minister. So just a couple of things from me firstly on the Victorian situation. So as the Minister has said, that’s the only locally acquired case in the whole of Australia today, it’s another member of that gathering that happened on the 6 February, so it is now day nine.

There are several cases from that gathering, this is the mother of a previously reported case so not surprising that she has become positive.

There are some issues because she’s a nurse and where she worked, and there were some issues being worked through there by the Victorian authorities in relation to where she might've been a while infectious. But a mildly infectious of the second test that she had in the last day.

So that’s the only case in Australia, Victoria remains of course on alert, and they’re looking through to repeat tests of people from those exposure sites that are now well publicised on the DHHS website.

All other states and territories as we talked about yesterday have been involved with contacts tracing exercises themselves because of the link with terminal four in Tullamarine.

And so far, thousands and thousands of people have been contacted, they have been asked to test, or test so far are negative. I was assured this morning by Professor Brett Sutton that all of the tests from those close contacts, primary contacts of the known cases from the Holiday Inn continue to be negative, so that is the good news.

In terms of New Zealand, yesterday when the Minister and I stood up, I said at that point we were going to continue with the green zone flights from New Zealand.

Further information came through the afternoon, particularly in relation to the concern in Auckland and the decision by the Prime Minister in New Zealand to institute there what they call a level three lockdown in Auckland, and their continued concern about the origin of those couple of cases, three cases, related to the worker that works in the laundry which services international flights.

So on the basis of that, I called a meeting last night, with the Chief Health Officers from Victoria, from New South Wales, and from Queensland, the three states that received New Zealand flights, and we made the decision to move to suspend that green zone arrangement for the period coinciding with the New Zealand announcement.

So for 72 hours initially, and I will review that before the expiry at that time. So from midnight last night, anyone arriving from New Zealand would be treated the same as any other country of people arriving into Australia and be going into 14 days of hotel quarantine. So we’ve notified all of our counterparts in New Zealand around that.

In terms of the Melbourne hot spot, from the Commonwealth point of view that continues to operate, we will be looking at that. I will receive advice today from Victoria and from Commonwealth officials about what should happen to that hot spot definition in the coming days, and we will put an announcement out about that later today.

One final thing from me, the AHPPC is continuing to meet daily. They’re in session at the moment, I’ll be going back to join them shortly, where hotel quarantine and the continuous quality improvement of hotel quarantine is the main agenda item.

I will leave it there.


Any questions?


Minister, I think there’s 16 million is stage 2b, when does that roll out?


So, we’ll provide details and dates on subsequent stages progressively. And what we're doing now is setting out the phase 1A, and then our approach to this is to set out the framework, and then to provide details once we have it confirmed.


Knowing what we know now with deliveries and the first batches, that sort of thing, that benchmark with 4 million vaccinations that you and the Prime Minister spoke about a while ago, do you still believe that is on track for- I think the last update you gave us was early April.

Do you think 4 million people will still be vaccinated by early April?


Yes. In terms of first doses, because of course the timeframe for AstraZeneca is still to be determined, and that’s anything from four, six, eight, more weeks, then of course subsequent doses will take a period of time.


So 4 million by early April will have received their first jab?


Yeah. We remain on track on the latest advice for all of the milestones which we’ve set.


What are we paying per dose on average across the board here? And the reason I asked the question is obviously a conjecture whether we could have a faster vaccine availability in Australia if we simply paid more to these international companies.

What’s your response to that?


Sorry. We set out the total cost of the vaccine program as over 6.3 billion, and importantly we’ve actually paid a premium, as the Prime Minister has set out, to ensure that we have onshore manufacturing.

So I do remember, and I think it is important to set it out. In August, when we were working with the international companies, we realised that the fastest way to ensure doses for Australians was actually to pay additional to bring onshore manufacturing to fruition.

So we worked with AstraZeneca, we worked with CSL, and that’s because they had to set up and to recreate their vaccine manufacturing processes.

So the two countries have collaborated, but we made the decision that it was worth Australia paying additional to bring those forward.

And I’ve said previously, I think the two most important decisions for Australia during the course of this pandemic, the 1 February 2020, the closure of the border with China, August 2020, the decision to invest in onshore manufacturing by CSL of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

What that has done is, those things have brought forward to the fastest possible time, subject to a full assessment, vaccine supply in Australia.


The discussion we are having publicly at the moment, if the UK has one in four adults already vaccinated, doesn’t that show that the plan we put in place in Australia is actually slower than some of the plans put in place in Europe, and what is the reason of that?


There are some countries, as you know, David, that have taken a decision because they were facing not just the pandemic wreaking terrible havoc on their communities, but mass death.

In the case of the UK, on so many days, over a thousand lives lost. And so they had to make that decision of bringing forward the vaccines for emergency approval process.

All our advice from all our medical authorities was that Australia should have a full assessment process according to our normal but expedited processes.

And there is a very important reason, and that is because we have to keep Australians safe and Australians want to know that every step is being taken.

I'm sharing the fact that as we research community attitudes to vaccines, what they want to know more than anything else is that we have done all of the steps, that no corners have been cut, and therefore, our priority is safety, safety, safety.

And if we do that, confidence goes up. If we do that, take up goes up and if we do that, coverage goes up and therefore, we protect the most Australians. Clare?


What was the allocation per state of the first 50,000 doses and how is that determined?


We'll provide that later on in the week. The states have been notified. It's being done on a population basis in terms of representation of phase 1A.


Minister, you said yesterday that the 80,000 Pfizer doses were confirmed minimum. Obviously this is well above that.

Is this uncharacteristically so or are you expecting this repeatedly both with this and the international arrival of AstraZeneca?

And if I may Professor Kelly, are the initial recipients of this Pfizer vaccine going to be involved in any kind of formal study group of what the effect of the vaccine is here?


So let me deal with that. So we’ve been able to guarantee the states – again, subject to actual arrivals – but 50,000 doses per week for the first four weeks of the Pfizer.

But we are expecting AstraZeneca – subject to approval and subject to shipping, to arrive from offshore for commencement in, at the very least, the first week of March, and that will allow a doubling of our overall vaccine distributions.

So we’ve been able to provide the states that confidence. And as we have further shipping confirmations, we’ll provide that detail both to the states and to the Commonwealth.


But is this almost doubling what you would expect or hope in the future to get more than 50,000 at least?


That’s for the state component of Pfizer. Of course, the Commonwealth will have additional aged care components. And as I say in week one, we’re looking at making available 30,000 doses.

We realise that if 80,000 are made available, allowing time, that we'd probably have in the order of 60,000 actual vaccinations in week one. So we are slightly ahead of schedule is the honest answer to your question, I think.



So, to answer your question, Clare. This is not a study; this is real life now. We already have the approval of the Pfizer vaccine.

We will be, of course- the TGA will be continuing to very carefully and in real time looking at safety issues, if they were to occur.

We have the vaccine operation centre set up here in Canberra, which is ready to respond to anything like that.

We'll be looking at coverage, of course, and a range of a range of other measures to make sure that we know what indeed is happening, how we can continuous quality improvement of our vaccine rollout.

And the effectiveness, it will be a different effectiveness study here in Australia compared with countries that, as the Minister has said, are seeing a thousand deaths a day.

We can't look for a drop in deaths, because we just don't have any – thank goodness – but we'll be looking at all of those things. But in real world, real time data, looking at the actual rollout of the program.


Minister, you began the press conference by using the words: the arrival of the Apollo 11 team on the moon, that was as a momentous day. This is a momentous day. In some ways, the most important thing that the Commonwealth will do this year.

The man who runs the Commonwealth is the Prime Minister. He's in the building. Why isn't he here with you now?


Well, today was announcement of an arrival. And so I think that you'll hear plenty from the Prime Minister this week. There will be no shortage of Prime Ministerial opportunities in all sorts of fora.

And the PM’s been great. Throughout this, he's just been incredibly important.

And I did use that phrase, because the last year has been a global moon shot. And in a world of great challenges, geopolitical and other, we can be cynical about how the world is. But the world came together to produce these vaccines, and that's what global cooperation has done.

Our researchers, our administrators, our medical regulator, our health officials, governments have cooperated, you know, talking with others. So this has been a global project, it’s been a global moon shot. And today marks another important milestone.

Next week, with the first vaccines, marks an even more important milestone, if that might give you a hint. And with those milestones, we give Australians hope and protection. They're the two things: hope and protection.

Tamsyn I think was next, and then David.


Professor Kelly, which vaccine will you be receiving and when? And have you had a conversation around the Chief Health Officers from other states around the same for them, and also the same to you?


So, we have had that conversation, and there will be announcements, as the Minister says, about that as we go through.

Look, I'd just like to put completely on record. I would take either of the vaccinations that we have. The one- subject to the TGA approval, and there will be announcements about that in the coming days.

But if the AstraZeneca does reach approval here, I would be very happy to take that vaccine. The Pfizer is already approved. I’m very happy to take that vaccine.

And if I was to take one or other of those, it would be to demonstrate my faith in both of them and they're equal.


So I'll give you a simple answer in terms of the Prime Minister and myself. We've got the first two vaccines. We agreed earlier on that the Prime Minister would be part of the first group to be vaccinated with the first vaccine. That will be Pfizer.

I'll be part of the first group to be vaccinated with the second vaccine, along with Professor Murphy, and he particularly wanted to make sure that he wasn't being seen to jump the queue. He a very good man, as is Professor Kelly.

And so what we'll see is that the leaders will take a mix to demonstrate the confidence. And if the TGA approves a vaccine, whether it's flu, whether it's COVID, then we have complete confidence in their judgement.

And we've also seen the World Health Organization, the European Medicines Agency, the UK regulators make very strong statements about the efficacy of a range of different vaccines.

Sorry, actually, it was David, yourself, and then Sam. And then I will have to finish after that.


Minister, phase 1A of the rollout will now include AstraZeneca. Who in that group will actually get that vaccine? And what prompted the decision to add AstraZeneca to the phase 1A, because as I understand it, it wasn't included in that group originally?


With respect, your presumption is incorrect. It was always part of it. You've heard through all of my press conferences that we were aiming for late February for Pfizer and early March for AstraZeneca.

I think that's a mantra that, sadly, all of you could recite. And that is phase 1A. So no change in that and people will receive them. There's no sort of focus on particular individuals or anything else. And as Professor Murphy said, all of the vaccines are equally effective and they'll be broadly available.


So you're not splitting up- quarantine workers will get Pfizer, other workers will get AstraZeneca.


No, they'll be rolled out as they go. And as we say, I'm starting with Professor Murphy and others. The first round of the second vaccine, that will be the AstraZeneca vaccine.

And I would ask of this group, it is immensely important that we maintain vaccine confidence and maintain support that if the regulator says it's safe, as has the World Health Organization, as has the European Medicines Agency, that we back them in.

It's a free country and anybody can take a different view. But that support for confidence will lead to uptake, will lead to protection, and will lead to greater freedoms.


Minister, so of the 60 per cent of the vaccines being sent to the states, do you expect them to be split evenly between quarantine workers and border workers, and essential hospital workers? Or is that up to the states?


It's a matter for the states, but they have indicated, and there's general support, that the greatest immediate risk is the border quarantine processes. And we all understand that. And I think that's reasonable.

We respect their views on that. And they're in a position, though, to be able to support all of the different groups, but they will make sure that the balance is focused on the greatest risk and I think that’s appropriate. That was raised by their medical advisors. It's been raised by their leaders. It's been raised by their Health Ministers.

And frankly, when that was put to us, we had to say that we think that’s sensible, prudent, and an appropriate approach.

But all of these groups, by definition, have to be somewhere within what's likely to be a six-week process for those first vaccines, and somebody has to be at the start, somebody has to be later on, no matter what.



I wanted to ask you about the allegations a Liberal staffer was raised that she was sexually assaulted in Defence Minister Linda Reynolds's office, and then the Defence Minister called her to a formal employment meeting in the room where she says that she was sexually assaulted. A Government spokesperson today said that that was inappropriate.

Should the Defence Minister apologise to Ms Higgins for that decision, given this is now the third allegation of sexual assault that’s been raised by Liberal staffers who say that they've been sexually assaulted by men in the Liberal Party, do you have a problem here?


Firstly, this must be deeply and agonisingly distressing for the woman involved, and she has absolute sympathy and total support. Secondly, it’s, as I understand it, the subject of investigations. And those are obviously very serious investigations.


It’s not the subject of an ongoing police investigation.


That’s the advice that I have is that there will be investigations if there aren't currently, but you will know more than me.

It's not a matter that I had previously heard of, so I don't have any detail beyond that. But nor is it appropriate given the potentially criminal nature of the claims.


But I asked you a question about the Defence Minister's conduct, not in relation to the criminal matter. I asked you whether or not Linda Reynolds should apologise for calling this woman into a formal employment meeting in the office where the incident allegedly occurred?


Respectfully, I don't have any of those details. And given the potentially criminal nature of the issue, it's not appropriate for me to be commenting. And I hope you understand that.

But I'll finish there given that we're approaching 2.00 o’clock. And I will say to Australians that this is the start of the next phase, and you've been an extraordinary nation so far.

No-one would have imagined, we certainly didn't imagine that a year ago, we would be in a position, as a world, as a country, to be administering vaccines now.

The most important message is: safety, safety, safety. But now that we have that evidence, and now that we have that confidence, we move to the next step of protecting Australians.

Thank you very much. Take care.

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