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Doorstop interview in Melbourne about coronavirus (COVID-19)

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's doorstop interview in Melbourne about coronavirus (COVID-19).

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

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In particular Professor Doug Hilton, the Director of the Institute, our medical researchers, such as Professor Wai-Hong, Professor David Komander, both of whom are helping Australians and the world to find treatments and cures and preventions against coronavirus.

We know that globally over 6.2 million people have now been diagnosed with COVID-19. Over 370,000 have, very sadly, lost their lives.

As part of that, Australia hasn't just been at the global forefront in containment and flattening the curve, but we are also blessed with leading researchers and institutions that have allowed us to play our part in helping to lead the world in global research.

Across the road at the Doherty they were the first institution to grow and share the virus.

Here, we're seeing world-leading research coming out of the National Drug Discovery Centre and the work of researchers at WEHI down the road at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute.

Today, the formal commencement begins of Mackenzie's Mission for 10,000 couples to have preconception screening to look for conditions such as spinal muscular atrophy or mitochondrial disease.

These are things that, together, represent the extraordinary research capacity in one small, but concentrated, part of Australia. And this research is about saving lives and protecting lives.

As part of that, I'm delighted to announce that the Australian Government will invest $66 million in research into vaccines, into antivirals, and also into respiratory clinical trials as well as health system management.

This funding is about saving lives and protecting lives and its part of our dual process of containment or flattening the curve and capacity, and increasing the ability of our health system to respond, in particular in relation to the containment.

Now, what we've seen is that, overnight eight cases - and Australia is now at 7203 cases and 102 lives, sadly, lost - and of those eight cases in the last 24 hours, five came through the hotel quarantine system.

In other words, what that shows is that our border controls remain absolutely vital to protecting Australia.

In an earlier three-day period that the Department of Health's Epidemiology unit has provided to me, 30 out of 43 cases came from overseas and have come through either the hotel quarantine or the navigation and shipping protections that have been put in place, in this case, in Western Australia - so all of these things are protecting Australians.

In addition to that we know that our testing regime is fundamental, and Doug and I were just discussing - and David in particular - was discussing the importance of testing.

Today we are expected to reach 1.5 million tests in Australia.

Those testing regimes are backed by 499 clinics for respiratory testing around the country - a combination of federal and federal-state partnerships.

These tests, these clinics have helped provide early warning and early advice for Australians.

In addition to that, what we also have is the fact that we now have one of the world's most sophisticated tracing programs and that's backed by the app - the latest advice I have is 6.175 million COVIDSafe downloads and registrations.

All of these things are helping to protect Australians as we go forward.

And then the most difficult in many ways has been the physical distancing - the isolation.

As we emerge from that isolation I want to give two very clear messages – one; we should be confident that we have the systems in place to protect Australians.

Our case numbers are very low, our transmission rates within the community are minimal.

We see some occasional cases in other states, but very, very few - Victoria is the only state that has had any - and each of the states and territories are responding in their way and in their time according to the national baselines.

So firstly confidence - confidence that as we return to our daily lives within the appropriate guidelines of each state and territory that we are safe, and that we have the systems to respond.

And confidence that that, in turn, will help give people the economic security - and we've seen a lift today in the consumer confidence index, which is very important.

It's a sign that Australians are both returning to work, building themselves security and providing long-term economic security off the back of our health success.

At the same time, there's another very important message, and that is caution about our behaviours. We must maintain our physical distancing.

Workplaces such as WEHI, public transport, all of these systems, have developed ways of people keeping their distance.

And in particular, respect our seniors. Our seniors are our most vulnerable.

Around the world, they are those that are most vulnerable, and giving them the space and the distance, continuing to respect the hand hygiene, the physical distance, downloading the COVIDSafe app, these are the three things that will help us emerge cautiously, but with confidence.

That then brings me to our capacity and I'm really pleased that we are now down to 20 cases within our hospitals - three still in ICU and one on ventilation, but only one case on ventilation.

And this was at a time when some had thought we would have run out of ventilator capacity in Australia.

Instead, we've built that capacity over 7500 - but one known patient, on the advice that I have this morning, under ventilation.

And we care for them, we focus on them, but we hope for them - and this has been an Australian achievement.

So I want to acknowledge what all Australians have done together in getting us to where we are.

But going forwards one of the things that we must do is provide the research for vaccines, for antivirals, for respiratory medicine, and I'm delighted, as part of that, to announce $66 million.

That includes approximately $19 million for vaccines with $5 million going to the University of Queensland for their molecular clamp technology - one of the world's leading vaccine projects in relation to coronavirus prevention.

We are also supporting nine projects around the country for antiviral medicines and here at WEHI, there are two.

Professor David Komander, his work on the immune system, turning back the immune system, allowing the immune system to come back is backed by $1 million.

The work in particular of Professor Wai-Hong, her work in allowing blockades to be put by the body's natural immunity system, by using antibodies to prevent the antibodies for reaching its targets - that's supported with almost $2 million.

Around the country we also have vital respiratory medicine and those seven clinical trials include the University of New South Wales, $1.5 million for their work on clinical trials, repurposing existing medicines.

These are actions that can save lives and prevent lives.

They're Australian researchers, Australian universities, Australian institutes helping to lead the world, helping to save lives.

And, Doug, I want to say thank you to you, and invite you to say a few words and say that Australia is blessed with the way our population has responded, but we're equally blessed with the way our extraordinary researchers have responded.


Thank you, Minister. Look, this is a really exciting announcement. I think of the way we treat COVID-19 as the way we have tackled cancer over the last 40 years.

We know that one approach isn't going to work. So in cancer we have surgery, we have chemotherapy, we have radiotherapy and we now have immunotherapy.

We need exactly the same response if, as a nation, and if as a globe we're going to beat this pandemic.

We have wonderful research-based, evidence-based responses in the public health setting in diagnosis around testing.

We're seeing the same research and rigour approach to the development of vaccines in Australia but also in development of small-molecule and biological antiviral therapies and prophylaxis.

I think it is only by properly funding the smartest minds that this country has in different ways that we're going to be able to provide the evidence-base and the research knowledge to allow our health care system to really overcome this pandemic.

We're delighted with the announcements. We're exceptional delighted about the collaboration that Wai-Hong Tham is leading with a number of research institutions and private sector companies around Melbourne including CSL, and the University of Melbourne, the Burnett Institute and the Doherty Institute.

We're absolutely excited about the work that David Komander is leading in terms of the development of antiviral therapies.

And I'd like to introduce Professor David Komander to tell you a little bit more about that. David?


Thank you. Well, I'd like to start by really expressing my gratitude and my excitement to receive the federal funding for our project.

What we are trying to do is to really hit a protein in the virus directly, and this is difficult because it's a novel protein.

It's a novel coronavirus, and therefore the proteins are new to us.

However, we are privileged in that we have been working on this family of proteins for the better part of 15 years and we are very aware of what we can do providing medicines against these new proteins that the virus has.

And also we are really standing on the shoulders of giants with having so much information already available to us.

So over the last two months, my team, and really not just my team but about six or seven teams at WEHI, on three different floors at WEHI, together with the Australian Synchrotron at Monash and CSIRO, have worked through this lockdown period to make astonishing progress on what's the protein looks like, what its shape is how, we can drug it and how we can really be very optimistic that we will generate these antiviral medicines.

And this is very likely not going to be the last coronavirus pandemic.

But what we would like to provide is a library of medicines that can be applied to the next pandemic as it comes along, and I think nobody wants to go through this again and I think that is about very important to be future proofed and really respond in the future as well. Thank you.


Thanks to David and Doug. So today's a day of hope and confidence, cautious hope, of course, but real hope and confidence.

So happy to take any questions from those in the room and then those on the phone.


Mr Hunt, what’s your reaction to the news that the Central Queensland man, Nathan Turner, did not have coronavirus as Queensland Health (inaudible).


Look, I'll leave that to Queensland Health generally.

I will say to the people of Blackwater, I know this has been a very hard time, and I have had feedback from the local MP, Ken O'Dowd, that it's a great relief to the people of Blackwater.

And so I want to thank them for their tolerance.

One of the things that would be very easy for me to do is to be critical of Queensland Health. I don't want to do that.

What they have done is respond to the evidence they had before them, and not to have tested would not have been the right thing.

Not to have tested the population with the evidence they had would not have been the right thing.

So, I know it's been difficult and I do offer my thanks and apologies and sorry to the people of Blackwater that they've had to go through a very difficult time, even though it's not a Commonwealth action.

But equally I don't want to be critical of the response of Queensland Health - they did the right thing.

And so one of the things here is that, as we look at the challenges we have as a country, it's very important we recognise that it's better to be cautious than not to.


Do you have concerns about the (inaudible)?


I'll leave that to Queensland Health.

Look, the latest advice is that I have is that of course this was done, very sadly, after Nathan's life was lost.

And doubly sadly, none of this brings him back. So his family, his friends they still have to grieve - they are now able to grieve without the extra weight.

But dealing in an unprecedented situation with a post-mortem test - people have done the best that they can.

You know what really matters? They've been honest about their findings, and that's a very important part of the Australian system.

And so there will be challenges that individual states and territories have. They've been honest and they've been comprehensive.


Some of the funding today for a trial of a drug called hydroxychloroquine. The WHO has stopped its trial on that drug, citing data showing that it probably doesn't work and may kill people.

Leading scientists say it’s no longer ethical to study. Why are we still funding it?


I'll let Doug talk about that. It’s WEHI’s trial, and nobody in the world is better placed.


So there- I’d make a couple of comments. The first is it's been highly politicised because of the commentary that President Trump has made on hydroxychloroquine.

I have to say, as a scientist I don't take President Trump's commentaries on science at all seriously.

Although he is absolutely the elected leader of the US, I think his track record on following scientific evidence is not something that I find compelling.

I think what we've learnt is that if you provide hydroxychloroquine to very sick patients you have to do so carefully.

I think there's still a huge amount of scientific debate on the usefulness of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment and I think they're absolutely required to be more clinical trials.

We also have clinical trials looking at the capacity to use hydroxychloroquine as a preventative in healthy patients and I think that is a completely different game.

If you look at the scientific evidence, and if you read the papers rather than simply reading the Tweets about hydroxychloroquine, I think the consensus is that it could well be an extraordinarily useful preventative, even if its capacity to be used as a treatment is more limited, though still possible.

So we think it is an idea and a hypothesis that requires proper testing and not a knee jerk response.


Further on that, the last time we were here you were announcing the trial. You needed 2000 healthcare workers, or just over. How’s that going?


The trial has started. Obviously the recruitment period will be longer, and thankfully will be longer than we anticipated - I think it was just before the Grand Prix when we were last here.

And the trial - we’ll recruit to the point where we have the numbers in the trial that we need to have a powerful outcome.

So it'll continue, it may take us eight months rather than 12 weeks previously.

But what a great position to be in that a trial of healthcare workers using a preventative is going to take longer. I think that's where we all hoped we would be pre-Grand Prix.

And I think we're thankful because of good political leadership. Great Chief Medical Officers federally, and through our states were listening to evidence and acting on that.

So you know it's going to take longer but we wouldn't want it any other way.


Trump has said some outlandish claims about hydroxychloroquine but he has also mentioned that he’s using it himself as a preventative. Is that something you’d support?


Absolutely not. I think that, again, I don't take what President Trump says in any way to colour the research effort of this institute.

I would hope it would not colour the research effort that we have as a nation, and nor would I ever want to take President Trump's advice about what to prescribe and what to take.


Can I just go back to Mr Hunt? Just going back to the Queensland case, do you think that what happened there could undermine public confidence in the coronavirus testing regime?


Look, I would hope not. We’ve done- by the end of today, one and a half million tests.

Our testing regime is one of the fundamental things which has safeguarded and protected Australians. As part of that, this follow-up.

So, in this case, Queensland had the difficult circumstance of dealing with a post-mortem test.

And they’ve done the right thing in being honest, they did the right thing in taking the precautionary tests.

It would be the easiest role I’ve ever had to be critical of Queensland, but it wouldn’t be the right thing for me to do that.

In this case, we want our public health authorities to be following up every case, and we want our public health authorities to be able to provide that testing.

These tests protect Australians and by having what is interestingly not just one of the broadest testing regimes in the world, but what the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has identified as being one of the world's most accurate testing regimes, we've been able to find the cases, we’ve then been able to trace the cases.

With the COVIDSafe app, we have the additional protections and capacities.

And those things coupled with our border controls at one end and our self-isolation and physical distancing at the other, they’re the four big things that have kept Australians safe.

And so having what the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine through their centre for mathematical modelling of diseases has identified as one of the most accurate systems in the world has been an immense national safeguard during this time.


Victoria went back to double figures today in terms of its COVID-19 infections. Dan Andrews puts that down to testing, but there are still the emerging clusters, particularly at a hotel.

Now there’s a new case emerged (inaudible). Are you worried about Victoria’s figures?


So, we keep our closest watch on Victoria, and there's always going to be somewhere that has its challenges.

But the responses that are occurring, the testing and the tracing are the things that have helped set Australia apart globally.

Those two elements, testing and tracing, absolutely indispensable.

That's one of the reasons why we would encourage people to continue to download the COVIDSafe app.

We're well ahead of our expectations at this point in time. But these elements are about protecting Australians and Victorians, and we need to be honest that this disease has not been eradicated and is likely to be with us in some way, shape or form for a considerable period of time.

So those two elements - caution in terms of our physical distancing, but confidence in terms of our safety and safeguards.

They’re the message, particularly along with respect for our elder Australians and the distance they require.


There are plans this weekend for a protest in Federation Square in solidarity with what’s happening in America.

So far, 7500 people have registered and they’ll be going, and there’s interest from more than 11,000. If we’ve got a group like that together in Federation Square, would that concern you?


I’ll let the Victorian Government manage the physical distancing.

Our focus in Australia is on maintaining our safeguards.

We believe in support in the right of peaceful protest. That's a fundamental part of our democracy.

At the same time, the state has responsibility for managing the public health guidelines and the distancing. So, I’ll let them manage the issues around gatherings and distancing.

In terms of peaceful public protest, as the Prime Minister has reaffirmed, as I'm doing, that's just something that is fundamentally part of our Australian set of values.


You can’t manage it, but is there a message you can send to the people that are planning on going?


Stay safe. Respect not just the cause for which you are campaigning, but also respect the safety of others by maintaining your distance.

And that applies not just to this one case but to every case everywhere in Australia.

Stay safe, keep your distance. Wash your hands. Keep your distance. Download the app. They're the things as we emerge from our isolation that we encourage people to do.


Just on the riots in the US, an Australian news crew has been assaulted by the- outside the White House. Does it concern you that we’re (inaudible).


I don’t have the details, I apologise. But obviously, one of the things we do is we’re very concerned always about the safety of Australians overseas.

During the course of this, our public service has done a tremendous job.

I obviously have seen the work of the Chief Medical Officer and his team and the Department of Health and Caroline Edwards and her team.

But DFAT has done an incredible job of protecting Australians.

So I can't speak to those facts but I do know that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is intensely focused on the safety and welfare of Australians around the world.


Just around those protests, should they prompt a new discussion- a renewed discussion in Australia about Indigenous deaths in custody?


Firstly, I think Indigenous deaths in custody deserve to be treated with the gravity and the seriousness of the cause in their own right.

At every moment they should be a focus. There shouldn't be any moment where we lose our focus on what's occurring, which is why we've had a renewed focus, why I know Ken Wyatt as the Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Indigenous Australians is so passionate.

But I know that the Prime Minister is intensely focused on making sure that we are giving Indigenous Australians health and work support, and that in turn improves their social position.

And so my view is that these are such important matters that they should be treated every day as a matter of priority for Australians.


Is there any update on this investigation into a Kawasaki (inaudible) overseas?


So, I know that the Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly has been reviewing the Kawasaki disease evidence from overseas.

To this stage, we have no advice and I've had no reports of cases in Australia. So I think that's important for Australian parents.

I’ll finish with that. I'll thank everybody for their time. But above all else, Doug, to Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, your incredible researchers here and to all our researchers around Australia.

They give us today real cause for hope of a vaccine, better treatments, better preventions or potentially a cure. And Australians ultimately are doing a great job in saving lives and protecting lives.


Going back to the issue of the Australian TV crew being rough-handled, shall we say, should the Australian Ambassador step in there and say- making a compliant or bringing to attention of the US Government what’s happened?


Look, I don't know the circumstances so what I will say is that consular officials around the world respond to the needs of Australians, and I have no doubt that it would be any different in this situation.

Thank you.

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