Media event date: 
13 April 2020
Date published: 
14 April 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

GREG HUNT:

Australian Red Cross Lifeblood, obviously one of the great blood supply institutions in the world, and it sits behind so much of the work of CSL, their work on vaccinations and treatments on blood products.

I’m also joined by Professor Sharon Lewin, the Head of the Doherty Institute, one of the leading virology and communicable disease institutes in the world.

It was the first institution in the world to both grow and share the coronavirus or COVID-19.

So, we have some outstanding people with us at this point in time.

It's been a privilege, Cath, to make a small donation of blood over the course of the last half hour, and I was attended by Violetta and Jen.

Jen has been here for over 20 years taking blood, and helping to provide that essential service. Australia's blood reserves are strong.

I have confirmed that this morning with the head of the National Blood Authority.

But over the coming months, we want to ensure that they continue to be strong.

And so, I would encourage Australians to continue doing what they have been doing and donating blood.

Ring ahead, make an appointment.

It can be any time in the next two months.

One of the products, which is very important, is blood plasma.

Blood plasma has recently been identified – and Sharon might also provide some advice on this – as a potential part of globally leading treatment in a cooperative consortium between Australia’s CSL and Japanese interests.

This could assist those patients who are most ill with COVID in their treatment.

Still to be determined, but plasma plays a very important role going forward, as does research more broadly.

Today in particular, we are boosting our capacity to help address the fight against coronavirus with $3 million in support for two projects to assist with research and treatment of patients.

In particular, a million dollars for the University of Sydney to lead a project which will use CT scanning, advanced training, advanced techniques, in particular to help with early diagnosis of those patients who are most at risk of proceeding to ICU or to ventilation.

This will allow for early treatment, better treatment, better recovery, and better outcomes.

It's about saving lives.

At the same time, we are supporting a consortium which was set up in 2016 by the Doherty Institute and others from around Australia, precisely to prepare for future communicable disease outbreaks, such as coronavirus.

As part of that, what we will be doing is supporting the APPRISE network, led by the Doherty Institute, with $2 million to assist with preparing for better, earlier, more rapid diagnosis of patients in aged care, and support for patients in intensive care.

These are immensely important steps to help save lives and protect lives.

More broadly, I would like to give a brief update on the two pillars of Australia's fight against coronavirus - the containment and the capacity.

In containment, we are always seeking to reduce the number of cases and in capacity to increase the ability of our health network to respond to coronavirus.

On containment, our borders, our testing, our tracing have been fundamental.

But, in particular, I want to focus on what we have done as a country over the last weekend and the weeks before with regards to self-isolation.

Australians have responded magnificently.

I said before this weekend that Easter could be the most important weekend in our fight against the coronavirus.

Australians have done what we had hoped and more. They have stayed at home. They have self-isolated. They have responded with the best sense of Australia imaginable.

The hard data is that our transport movements have been below 13 per cent over the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Easter, with Easter Sunday data still to come.

Below 13 per cent of the average movements for this time in an ordinary year. That means that Australians are making a difference.

They are saving lives and protecting lives with their own actions. Staying at home. Maintaining the distance. Responding to the requests.

I couldn't be more impressed, more honoured, and more heartened by the work of Australians over the Easter weekend and in the weeks before.

This has a real consequence in the best sense. We are now seeing consolidation of the flattening of the curve.

The latest data shows that we have had consistent growth in new cases of below 2 per cent a day.

What that means is that we are now beginning to see a consolidated flattening of the curve.

That doesn't mean we're out of our challenge.

There is still growth and there could, at any time, be outbreaks and spikes.

But this is a cause for real hope and real aspiration.

We said at the start that we would get through this. We are getting through this. And now I know, and I believe absolutely, we will get through this.

So, I want to say thank you to all Australians for their action.

In particular, I would note that there are now 6335 cases in the advice given to me by the National incident Centre shortly before joining you.

Sadly 61 Australians have lost their lives.

At the same time, 3338 Australians have now officially recovered from coronavirus; well more than half of those who have contracted the condition have now recovered.

In terms of our hospitals and our ICUs, 238 patients as at 6:30 this morning were in hospital.

81 are in intensive care, and 35 on ventilators.

These numbers have reduced and now stabilised. And that's a very important sign for the future.

All of this is an indication that we are making real progress, not just here in Australia, but on a global scale.

Our capacity is also being increased.

In primary care, we have now had over 3.4 million Telehealth consultations.

Our aged care services are continuing to provide high quality infection control and caring for those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

And in our hospitals, today's announcements are about building on the partnership between public and private, building on the expansion of ventilator capacity, which has now more than doubled and is on a pathway to more than triple.

And so these research announcements are about using CT to help with early diagnosis to save lives and to protect the lives of those who are most at risk of intensive care and ventilation needs, and about using the highest quality data to help with the best treatment and the earliest diagnosis for those in aged care and in intensive care.

So, they're very important steps.

Finally, I want to address questions that have been raised.

I think it is very important to say that now is the time to stay the course. To continue with these self-isolation and social distancing.

These are producing real reductions in the rate of growth, real reductions in the number of new cases, and real increases in the number of cleared cases.

So, I want to thank Australians and to invite Cath and then Sharon to make some brief remarks.

CATH STONE:

Thanks, Minister. I firstly would like to start by thanking the Minister for his donation today.

It will make the difference in lives of patients and their families. And so I want to thank him for leading the way.

Australia every week needs 29,000 donations, and we will continue to need those through the pandemic, through the winter period, and we're asking all Australians- to be a reasonable excuse to leave home and come and make a donation during this next period.

Blood donations continue to be needed by cancer patients, by young mums, by those in trauma events, and so our need continues through this period.

And we would like to thank the many generous Australians that have stepped out of their homes to come and make a donation during this time.

If you would like to make a donation, you can contact us on 13-14-95 or go to donateblood.com.au.

Thank you.

GREG HUNT:

Sharon.

SHARON LEWIN:

Thank you, Minister. I'm here speaking as the lead investigator for APPRISE.

APPRISE stands for The Australian Partnership in Pandemic Preparedness for Infection Diseases Emergencies.

It was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council as a centre for research excellence back in 2016, and it shows some of the foresight that the NHMRC and the Australian Government had after the swine flu outbreak in 2009, where it was clear that to mobilise research funds takes time and to form partnerships also takes time.

So, over for the past three years, we've worked with 20 organisations across Australia, ranging in expertise from a laboratory science, public health and clinical research.

We now have over 50 investigators working together, and back in early March we were able to mobilise $500,000 for research efforts from that network.

Today the Minister is announcing an additional $2 million to go to an APPRISE to fund some key research we need in our response to coronavirus.

I thought I would just highlight three projects of high interest.

The first is APPRISE will lead a national zero prevalence study to understand how many people really are immune to coronavirus.

Many of you would have heard about the concept of herd immunity, or people becoming immune to the virus without ever getting sick.

Well, we still have no idea how common that occurs.

To do that we need a blood test for coronavirus, which we now have, and led by Kristine Macartney from the University of Sydney, we will analyse thousands of Australians from different risk groups to understand how common immunity is.

The second project looks at anti-viral and immune load modulating drugs for people that are very sick in intensive care.

This is work led by Steve Webb from Western Australia. And it builds on again a pre-existing network that was from established before we ever knew coronavirus exists.

This was a network to look at new treatments that come into- for people that are in intensive care with severe pneumonia.

It’s an international network or clinical trial network called REMAP-CAP.

APPRISE has supported REMAP-CAP from the beginning and this funding will allow us to enrol additional intensive care units across the country, so that every Australian can have access to these new drugs.

I should add although there are many drugs talked about that can work for coronavirus, none have yet been proven.

And very clearly message from the Chief Medical Officer that doctors should not be using unproven drugs outside of clinical trials.

So, this funding will allow us to expand clinical trial sites around the country.

Finally, a big focus of APPRISE will be in aged care.

Elderly people are at the highest risk of dying from coronavirus. And we plan to use rapid point-of-care tests to diagnose COVID-19 as well as influenza in aged care facilities.

This is work led by David Paterson from the University of Queensland and Sheena Sullivan from the Doherty Institute.

The last pillar of APPRISE has been to always work with Indigenous communities.

Indigenous communities are posted adversely affected by influenza, and we still know little of what will happen with COVID-19.

And in all of our projects there is a separate part that will work with Indigenous communities to understand immunity, to understand diagnosis, to understand attitudes to quarantine and other areas.

Thanks very much.

GREG HUNT:

Happy to take any questions from those who are here, and then those who are in Canberra over the phone after that. Please.

JOURNALIST:

What sort of level of support will the Government provide the aviation sector, particularly for those (inaudible)?

GREG HUNT:

Look, I understand that the Deputy Prime Minister is working directly with the aviation sector, and he will have more to say in coming days on that.

JOURNALIST:

So, is the government looking at subsidising Qantas and Virgin (inaudible)?

GREG HUNT:

I know he's working very directly with them and I will respectfully not pre-empt that.

JOURNALIST:

So, researchers are saying vaccines should be 12-18 months away. How likely is we will get an effective treatment before then?

GREG HUNT:

So, this is exactly what today's about. It's about both diagnosis and treatment.

The CT scans offer a window into the body and early insight to the risk that patients who have been diagnosed with coronavirus may then proceed to critical conditions.

And if they have that early diagnosis of a negative pathway, then they can take early steps.

And then the work of the Doherty and APPRISE is all about better treatment and testing those treatments.

There are a range of treatments being tested in Australia, whether it's the Doherty, whether it's the University of Queensland, whether it's work being done by Monash University, and then around the world, and then there's the work on vaccines.

So diagnosis, testing and treatment and vaccines are all being considered in Australia.

JOURNALIST:

So, what are the most promising treatments available at the moment?

GREG HUNT:         

I might ask one of the world leaders in this space, Sharon, to answer.

SHARON LEWIN:  

Treatments at the moment are from two groups of people - people who are sick and in hospital and to stop them going into intensive care, and most of the focus has been on anti-viral treatments to stop the virus in its tracks.

Or treatments that are targeted towards people in intensive care already very sick, and to stop death - and those are targeted at the immune response.

There is about 300 clinical trials currently of treatments for coronavirus.

There are a few good leads from small studies originally from China and now from the US and Europe, but actually none of them have yet been evaluated in what we call a randomised trial - comparing the treatment to standard of care, with the clinical outcome in a large number of people.

And so, we really are waiting for these results. Some of these will come out of China, we hope, in the next few weeks.

One study looked at an HIV drug in stop- in seeing whether it could improve clinical outcomes and that showed no benefit but it was tested in people that were quite sick.

So, we have a range of anti-viral drugs and a range of drugs that modulate the immune system and they need to be tested in clinical trials.

Just very briefly, we have two big clinical trials now happening across the country.

One of them is REMAP-CAP which is in intensive care, looking at anti-viral drugs and drugs that modulate the immune system in hundreds and thousands of people in intensive care across Australia and around the world.

And the other is a large clinical trial called ASCOT, led out of the Doherty Institute.

It will actually start enrolling tomorrow, and it will compare two anti-viral drugs - the HIV drug and an arthritis drug, either alone or together, compared to standard of care to see if that stops deaths and stops people going to intensive care.

I'm actually quite optimistic we will have results at least - whether the results will be good or not so good - from many clinical trials in the next few weeks.

The timeline for anti-viral drugs, and knowing whether they work or not, is much shorter than for vaccines because these studies are using existing drugs.

So we know their safety, we know how to use them, we just don't know if they lead to clinical benefit.

JOURNALIST:

Do you think it’s wise for people to be accessing their super now (inaudible) 25-30 years old.

GREG HUNT:         

Look, we’ve made superannuation available for people with their own circumstances.

And the important thing is for us to provide the opportunity and then individuals will be best placed to determine their own allocation of resources.

And I think that is one of the important things here; to trust Australians.

We’ve trusted Australians with self-isolation, social distancing and they’ve responded magnificently.

At the same time, we have also said we want to trust Australians with their own money - it is their funding, their money.

And Australians are very wise and we should never underestimate them on these things.

JOURNALIST:

One last one, can you give us any indication what we might see (inaudible) social distancing restrictions (inaudible)?

GREG HUNT:         

So, the question was about when social distancing restrictions might ease.

And the answer is it's too soon – as the Chief Medical Officer said yesterday – to make changes.

What we want to do now is to, in particular, consolidate the containment, we want to work towards an effective eradication, but as the Chief Medical Officer actually said this morning, we can never guarantee that absolutely, but we want to work towards that effective eradication.

At the same time, we have also been planning the road out.

So now we have come from the road in, which has been the rapid escalation of measures, which has put us in as strong a position as any country.

We're currently on the road through and now is the period to consolidate for the next period of time.

But over the weekend, over the last week, throughout the course of this week, we're actively planning that road out.

And to give some guidance to Australians, that really is likely to involve - but subject to the National Cabinet following the medical advice which is their absolute commitment - three elements.

One, is clear indication that we are suppressing the case numbers in Australia - that could be case numbers, it could be retransmission rates, all of which are being developed into an assessment protocol.

Secondly, it's about making sure that we have rapid response capability, testing the tracing capability where the states have done an amazing job.

And then potentially - even ideas such as that of Professor Collignon from the ANU - looking at things such as profiles in sewage where there may well be, on the basis of what the Netherlands has shown, the capacity to analyse sewage to see whether or not there are early trace signs.

And so firstly, signs of rapid, significant, sustained decrease in Australian cases.

Secondly, the response capability.

And, thirdly - and this is the work that the Prime Minister has been deeply engaged in - planning through once those things are achieved, the steps out - which would always be gradual.

We've seen from really sophisticated, successful countries in coronavirus management such as South Korea, Japan and Singapore that they've had to tighten measures in different ways.

So, we want to make sure that the more we do now, the greater our ability to manage it in the future.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, 59 Qantas staff are now infected with coronavirus. Did the Government mandate protective gear on rescue flights from international (inaudible)?

GREG HUNT:         

I’ll have to leave that to those who are managing it, I'm sorry.

JOURNALIST:

In hindsight, those staff had exemptions for 14-day quarantine, considering how many of them have coronavirus, was that a bad idea?

GREG HUNT:         

I think what's very important is that we are able to maintain our international links.

It's critical, both in terms of bringing Australians home, but also in terms of bringing absolutely essential personal protective equipment, bringing tests and bringing other essential medicines and supplies to Australia.

So, we have to keep the air links open.

What has happened is that the National Cabinet has taken additional steps in terms of isolation for flight crews.

JOURNALIST:

And the hospital outbreak in North Tasmania has taken out 20 per cent capacity (inaudible), are you in consultation with the AHPPC, to make sure we don’t have more of these outbreaks across Australia?

GREG HUNT:         

Yes. With the Chief Medical Officer this morning, we were monitoring and focusing on the support for hospitals.

I will say this: that I’ve been working very closely, as has the broader Australian government, with the Tasmanian Premier, Peter Gutwein, and Tasmanian Health Minister, Sarah Courtney.

They have responded, I think, as well as anybody could possibly have hoped.

They have immediately taken steps to protect staff and protect patients, they have asked the Commonwealth if we would private resources and the Australian Government will be supporting an AUSMAT, or Australian Medical Assistance Team, as the leadership, assisted by the Australian Defence Force.

It’s likely to be up to the capacity of up to 40 personnel, arriving in the course of the next 36 hours to commence emergency department support services on Wednesday.

I think what we're seeing is that overwhelmingly, our health professionals are not just courageous, but doing an extraordinary job.

It may well be that some of these infections that we're seeing have occurred outside of the hospital amongst people.

But we’ll leave that to the state health authorities that are doing the tracing, but what we’ll continue to do is focus on the highest standards in the world.

Australia has significantly over recent weeks flattened the curve in a way that very few others have seen and that's been because of the work of our health professionals and our community all coming together.

And so we will continue to support them.

We've recently announced large additional supplies of PPE and I know some of the states have been also able to secure that.

But above all else, maintaining the infection standards.

I’ll take questions from Canberra now. I think Dana may be first?

JOURNALIST:

Thanks, Minister. Can I just ask you about the mental health situation of - in the hotel quarantine?

The World Health Organization guidelines for prisons say that isolation can be a suicide risk, and that - you know, prison cells have to be set up in a way they are not hanging points, no unsupervised access to materials that can be used for self-harm.

Are those procedures being undertaken or should they in regards to quarantine (inaudible) to make sure that people are being kept safe?

GREG HUNT:

I know that the state authorities that are overseeing the hotel quarantine are ensuring that there is a very strong focus on mental health and safety for people who are returning passengers.

Quarantine has been an essential part of bringing down the rate of transmission.

Over two thirds of cases have come from people who have returned from overseas.

So, it's absolutely an essential element and it's been one of the most important decisions that the National Cabinet has made.

But in addition, I do know that the state authorities are focusing very heavily on mental health and will continue to focus on that.

JOURNALIST:

Okay. Could I just ask a quick follow-up? (Inaudible) Government is trialling (inaudible) hotels for people who have COVID but they are not sick enough to be hospitalised (inaudible) supervised isolation.

And the AMA down there think this is a model that should be pursued more widely. Is that something you’re willing to consider?

GREG HUNT:

Well, around the country, quarantine is being used both for patients who have coronavirus and where they have been returning from overseas and also for people who do not have coronavirus, but are in that quarantine period.

And so, there are a range of ways of dealing with patients who do have coronavirus but are at the mild to moderate end of the spectrum and we're very open to these suggestions.

One of the great things is that there’s a National Cabinet and structure, but there’s freedom and capacity for individual jurisdictions to be creative and responsive, so long as, above all else, the health of the patient and the protection of the community are paramount.

So I think this is a positive initiative and I welcome it. Clair.

JOURNALIST:

Yeah, thanks, Minister. We're on this effective eradication pathway now. But there is obviously concern about how we come out of it without (inaudible) triggering another outbreak, and there is still a lot of commentary about pursuing herd immunity instead.

But some epidemiologists are saying it could take years for Australia to achieve a level of immunity needed without overwhelming our health system.

So, should Australians potentially expect something like what we're now seeing in north-west Tassie with really targeting local outbreaks for something that could be a long-term strategy?

GREG HUNT:

So as we go forward- firstly, I addressed last week the question of a deliberate herd immunity strategy, which is not the Government's strategy and it's not the medical advice.

Essentially, if it were 60 per cent of the population that were required to produce this, that would be 15 million Australians and if there were a one per cent loss of life, that would be an unthinkable, unthinkable, strategy and one we reject.

At the same time, what we are doing now with containment and suppression and this goal of effective eradication, but without ever being able to promise that any country could completely do that, means that we are giving ourselves the time to plan the exit.

Now is the time to maintain what we are doing, but to plan the road out. And then in terms of what you have raised in particular, the rapid response is a critical part of it.

What Tasmania has done with a localised ring of isolation is exactly what we talked about early in February, and they’ve done that, according to the pandemic plan, and that rapid response, that if there were individual cases which broke out into a local spike, then the ability to respond, contain and to isolate will be absolutely critical to Australia's capacity to, further down the track, progressively lift restrictions on a step by step basis.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, just before, Professor Brendan Murphy yesterday said there was nowhere else in the world he would rather be during this pandemic than in Australia.

Obviously, we have had great success in flattening the curve. But do you have any information about how our ICU survival rate, hospital capacity and other resources compares to international examples?

GREG HUNT:

We know that our overall case fatality rate is one of the lowest in the world.

We are not immune from the iron laws of the disease which means that, sadly, there have been and will continue to be the loss of life.

But I think that outcome says two things.

One is we are testing broadly - so, our testing continues to be one of the broadest testing regimes in the world.

And, two is that our medical professionals are doing an extraordinary job in saving lives and protecting lives.

Other information I would be happy to receive some questions and we will follow-up those details for you.

Tamsin, please.

JOURNALIST:

Yes. Hello Minister Hunt. I just have two questions and if you’ll bear with me, I will ask them separately if that's okay.

The first was in relation to the spread of the coronavirus. We have obviously seen hundreds of people being hit with police fines across all the states over the past few weeks.

But there's been, I guess, the worrying reports of young people flouting the rules.

I was just wondering if you had any indication of what role young people have been playing in relation (inaudible) with spreading the virus so far, and what your advice would be for young people who think the virus doesn't - isn't related to them, and it's an old people's issue?

GREG HUNT:

Sure. This virus doesn't discriminate. It can strike young people or old people.

It can be carried by young people or old people.

It is, of course, more likely to have a catastrophic impact on those who are older, but as we've seen from around the world, anybody can be subject to a tragic outcome.

Moreover, anybody can transmit that disease.

We know that our school children are less likely to get it, far less likely to get it and far less likely to have consequences.

But particularly people in their 20s – they’re not immune either to contracting or to spreading the disease.

We know that there was a significant outbreak in the Bondi area, in Sydney, and that this was likely to have come from, you know, very significant close social engagement.

And so any person can save a life through their decisions or inadvertently risk a life.

So, my message to young Australians is none of us are immune and any of us can have an impact on others.

But my message to all Australians - and I will almost finish here - I know, Tamsin, you have one more question - is to say millions and millions of Australians have done the right thing and helped protect lives and save lives, not just over the Easter weekend, but over recent weeks.

And that is why we are flattening the curve.

So, if we continue doing this, we will continue to protect those who are most vulnerable.

I’ll take the last question from Tamsin, and then I apologise, I’ll have to keep going.

JOURNALIST:

Thank you so much. Just finally, from your understanding of AHPPC’s advice to the National Cabinet, should Australians still be able to visit graves and cemeteries if they’re abiding by social distancing? And has there been any specific advice around this.

GREG HUNT:

Look, I'm not aware of any specific advice on that particular question, I apologise.

I know that advice has been set out in relation to funerals. I will refer you to the AHPPC for that one.

Alright. Look, thank you everybody. I just want to finish by saying; what this weekend shows; is that Australians can do it, and when we do do this then we are giving ourselves the pathway through the virus and the pathway out the other side.

Take care. Thank you.

Ministers: