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Doorstop interview about the Government's strengthened support for melanoma patients and coronavirus (COVID-19)

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's doorstop interview about the Australian Government expanding subsidised access to breakthrough melanoma treatment options on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), and coronavirus (COVID-19).

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

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Thank you everybody for joining us here at Frankston Hospital. It’s a hospital I know very well. Not only have many members of my family been treated here, but my mother was a nurse here, my parents met here and I was born here.

So it is very familiar territory and it provides exceptional service to patients. I particularly want to acknowledge Felicity Topp, the CEO, our doctors here, Vikas, Gary and Oliver, our amazing nurses, and then to acknowledge Ben Brady who’s the head of oncology at Cabrini Hospital, who has brought some of his wonderful patients with him, and he’s also on the board of Cancer Australia, so one of Australia’s leading medical oncologists.

And then to acknowledge that today is about patients. Patients such as Bruce and Jazelle Hike, patients such as Toby and Drew and all of the others who are here being treated, whether it’s for melanoma or other cancers.

I am delighted to announce that in the battle against melanoma – a condition that affects 15,000 patients a year, one patient every five hours loses their battle with melanoma and Australia sadly still has one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world – but in that battle we will now be listing two new medicines that are breakthrough immunotherapies that will help save lives and protect lives. From today Opdivo will be available for patients who are postoperative with advanced melanoma conditions.

This will help over 1,500 patients, it will save $100,000 a year. It means that something which would otherwise have cost over $100,000 will now be available for as little as $6.60 a script. These medicines will be available on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and it remains one of our most significant investments as a Government in saving lives and protecting lives.

In addition to that what we see is that a further 600 patients will be able to access combination immunotherapy treatment with Opdivo and Yervoy. Together these medicines will assist patients who have inoperable metastatic melanoma, or an inoperable melanoma that has spread.

And without these treatments the prospects for patients would not be as good. What we see from Pam’s story and Toby’s story and Drew’s story is the progress that medicines which have as their foundation the Nobel Prize-winning immunotherapy research from only two years ago, and to give patients access to Nobel Prize-winning new treatments, breakthroughs, means that as a country we’re saving lives and protecting lives.

I’d also like to give an update on coronavirus and the spread of coronavirus. Overnight we’ve had news that the condition has now spread to over 61 countries. That includes Ecuador and San Marino, amongst others. And we continue to monitor and engage with global developments.

The Deputy Chief Medical Officer has briefed me just prior to coming here today. He has been in conference with authorities from the UK and the US, from the World Health Organisation and others, looking at the spread, looking at containment measures around the world.

In addition to that, within Australia I can confirm that there are now 27 cases in Australia. Two have been confirmed in the last 24 hours. A tenth case from the Diamond Princess evacuees has been identified in Howard Springs, a 78-year-old Victorian man who will be medevacked to Victoria.

I understand that he is in good condition but nevertheless has been isolated and will be medevacked to Victoria. In addition, New South Wales Health has identified a second case of a person who has travelled to Iran.

That case has been isolated in Westmead, an Australian resident who has recently returned from Iran, a male in his 40s. And contact tracing has begun and New South Wales Health is following through everything which was agreed, which has been established and which is now being implemented in terms of isolation, treatment and contact tracing.

What this does is it confirms our decision of yesterday to raise to level four, meaning do not travel, the travel advisory with regards to Iran, and it also emphasises the fact that the decision to impose a travel ban on non-Australian citizens was in our view the right view with regards to the rapid spread and the very high death rate, which indicates a far higher undetected rate in Iran.

And therefore if they are undetected they are not being discovered at the border, at the point of exit. So through an abundance of caution, we’ve taken these steps.

I want to thank everybody involved. Our hospitals around the country are stepping up, our health systems are stepping up and so is the public. So, to emphasise that while we are not immune, we are as well-prepared as any nation on the world and the steps which have been foreseen, prepared for, are now being implemented.

I think I might ask Ben Brady, as one of Australia’s leading oncologists, just to talk briefly about melanoma and what these new immunotherapies mean. And then, happy to take any questions.


Thanks, Greg.

Just two comments. One, there’s two groups of patients who’ll benefit from the Opdivo announcement – the stage 3 patients which are patients, if you like, who’ve had a mole which has gone to a lymph node.

So, the surgeons cure about half those patients. Opdivo will increase that cure up to about 70 per cent.

And the second very exciting announcement from my perspective as a clinician, and (inaudible), who is behind me, also a melanoma doctor, is that we now have choices.

So, when we meet patients in the clinic with advanced melanoma – that might be to the lung or the liver or what have you – we can now make a clinical choice on what the best way forward on the first line setting. So that’s been something we’ve been after for a couple of years and it’s very exciting to have it now available.


While we have you, Doctor, do mind just, practically speaking for these patients, how much easier does it make it for them in terms of their treatment? How much better chance do they have? I know you said up to about 70 per cent but it obviously changes their life.


Yeah. So, in our stage 3 patients- my clinical thing is patients would have a 50 per cent cure by having surgery. It’s now 70 per cent cure with the Opdivo. That’s about as clear as I (inaudible). That’s what I’m trying to sit there with my patients – that’s what I’m saying to them.


Great. Thank you.

And I also want to acknowledge Neil from BMS, providers of some of these treatments that, you know, they make a huge difference. Enormous investment, but it means the difference between a 50 per cent recovery rate and a 70 per cent recovery rate. And that can literally be measured in lives saved.

Happy to take any questions, firstly on the PBS, and then of course on coronavirus.

Let’s go to coronavirus.


Economically, obviously we’ve spoken about health precautions, but economically, what is the stimulus that the Government’s considering?


So I’ll respectfully leave that to the Treasurer and the Prime Minister. As the Prime Minister said on Thursday, we are considering targeted action. The Prime Minister is working with the Treasurer, the Secretary of Treasury and then appropriate sectors in identifying the priorities.


Do we know when they’ll at least report back to the National Security Committee?


Look, I understand that there will be work before the National Security Committee this week. But I think it’s very important to understand, our primary focus has been on the health impacts and we’ve made the decisions we’ve taken on the basis of protecting Australians.

Now, we are in the fortunate position of having brought the budget back into balance, that we are well prepared economically; but our goal, our task, our fundamental national responsibility is to keep people safe. And that remains our overriding concern.


Italy had another eight deaths overnight. Has that changed your thinking in terms of a travel ban or restrictions there?


So, I’ve spoken with the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, this morning. The Australian Health Protection Principle Committee, or what’s known as the AHPPC, is meeting daily and reviewing travel advisories and travel bans on a daily basis.

But I have specifically asked them today, as part of their work, to consider what is the appropriate level of advice for Italy. The good thing is, they make advice, they give advice without fear or favour and we have implemented it without fear or favour.

But I have specifically asked them today to consider whether or not the current arrangements need to be changed in any way, shape or form.


Do you think the Government acted too slowly in the Iran travel ban, just given there’s now another case confirmed in New South Wales?


No. We are one of the world’s leading nations on this. We’ve acted early, we’ve acted hard, and we’ve acted decisively.

I know there has been some criticism that we make have acted too early on that front. I think the affirmation today is that, in acting early, we have been ahead of the curve. But right from the outset, we’ve made it clear that we will take strong action, but that Australia is not immune.

So therefore, we’ve prepared for all responses. But for those who thought that we had acted too soon on Iran, I would say: we understand your views, we understand that people will want to be cautious in implementing these travel restrictions but we will make the decisions that are going to protect Australians without fear, without favour, in the sole interest of keeping Australians safe.


Are we effectively just buying time until the dam wall breaks?


What the Chief Medical Officer and what the chief health officers of all the states have said is that we are not immune; that we can however dramatically reduce and mitigate the consequences on Australia.

But it’s very important for us to be upfront that if the world is experiencing a condition that it is unlikely that Australia will avoid that condition, but what we have done, I think against virtually all expectations, was through the actions that we have taken, from 21 January onwards, been able to protect Australians in a way which is focusing on early identification, isolation, treatment, and containment.


In relation to the petition on the Gold Coast, do you know how many of the 40 people that were in contact with her have been tracked down, and should they be concerned?


So, the Queensland Health Department is going through what’s called contact tracing, which means every person who can be identified and has been identified is being followed up.

Queensland Health will provide an update on the progress of that. But even as of yesterday, they were making very, very significant progress in tracking down all of those who could be identified.

In addition, I’m advised that they will set up what’s called a respiratory clinic on the Gold Coast so as anybody who is presenting with symptoms can go to a separate clinic specifically set up for this purpose. This is what’s been anticipated, planned, prepared and designed with all of the states and territories, and this is the first one to be stood up and established around the country.


So it’s a coronavirus clinic?


It is a clinic, specifically for people with suspected coronavirus. And it does follow the case that was identified.


Is it getting to the point where people in Australia should start reconsidering shaking someone’s hand or kissing them on the cheek? Have we reached that point yet?


No. Only yesterday, I was with the Chief Medical Officer and his advice was clear and categorical, and that is: go about your daily business.

At this point, we have had two cases in the last three weeks identified in the general community, both from Iran, and that was why we acted yesterday immediately on the Iranian situation. And we’ll continue to monitor daily and to follow the advice of the medical officials.

All right, thank you very much.

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