This content relates to a former minister

Doorstop interview on 13 November 2020

Read the transcript of a press conference with Minister Hunt about University of Queensland COVID-19 vaccine trials; Vaccine trials; Role of healthcare workers; International borders; Sugar Tax; Victorian Government announcement for an Institute of Infectious Diseases in Melbourne.

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

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Minister Hunt, this is an opportunity for us to thank you very much for the Federal Government’s support for, obviously, UQ’s vaccine work, obviously in addition to the State Government’s support, and we’ve also received the support from many of our donors.

But we do absolutely acknowledge the Federal Government’s support and thank you for that support, and thank you for being here today.

As you’ve heard, things are progressing very, very well, and all of the initial steps are very, very promising.

And we’re obviously looking forward to more good news into the future, but we also acknowledge the Federal Government’s commitment to the UQ vaccine with, obviously, the commitment to CSL for the 51 million doses.

So, I’ll hand over to you, Minister, but thank you very much.


Look, thanks very much to the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Deb Terry; to the Chancellor, Peter Varghese; to Professor Paul Young who’s leading the research team here at the University of Queensland; but also Professors Terry, Munroe and Keith Chappell, and our extraordinary group of world leading medical researchers here at the University of Queensland.

And what they have developed is a vaccine that can save lives and protect lives.

And this is a model of the vaccine, and this vaccine will help save lives not just here in Queensland, not just here in Australia, but around the world. And what gift from Australia’s researchers.

And our doctors, and our nurses, our pathologists in this, the week which has included the International Day of Pathology, our aged care workers, our pharmacists have all been heroes.

But today I particularly want to say this – that our medical researchers are national heroes and global heroes because their life's work, their dedication to research in the laboratory, and conversion from that to manufactured product, is something that will make a difference around the world.

I'm delighted to be able to make some announcements today off the back of the briefings from Paul and his team.

First, the initial data is very clear, that the vaccine is proving to be safe through Phase 1 clinical trials, and that it is proving to produce a positive antibody response.

That means it is doing its job, that is particularly so in the elderly, and that is an especially important outcome given the global vulnerability to elderly around the world from COVID-19.

Secondly, I can announce that CSL has completed the manufacturing of this vaccine for the Phase 3 clinical trials, and is already in a position to commence.

And that may come as a positive surprise to many people here in Australia and around the world, but what it shows is that we are ahead of schedule.

And then thirdly, as a consequence of that, CSL will now move for regulatory approval to commence Phase 3 clinical trials before the end of this year, and that is an extraordinary development.

It means that this vaccine will potentially be available, subject to the results of those trails, for delivery to Australians early in the third quarter of 2021.

Our national goal is to ensure that all Australians who seek to be vaccinated are vaccinated by the end of 2021.

And we have had very good news in recent weeks and indeed in recent days – agreements with CSL and the University of Queensland for 51 million units of the molecular clamp. Agreements with AstraZeneca and Oxford for 33.8 million units, with Novavax for 40 million units, and with Pfizer for 10 million units of their respective vaccines.

All of these developments are now being reinforced by data coming through showing strong safety and strong outcomes in terms of T cell and antibody responses.

In other words, the vaccines are on track to do what they are intended to do, and that is to save lives and protect lives.

We know that in a world where there are 600,000 cases a day on some days, where, sadly, the last day for which we have data showed the highest rate of lives lost around the world, Australia is an island sanctuary.

What we have achieved is incredible. Today the early advice that I have is that New South Wales is on track to have zero cases, matching what Victoria is doing.

Australia may well be on track for another zero case day of community transmission.

We wait for the final results from all of the states and territories, but the preliminary advice from the National Incident Centre is very positive.

But we can't be fully safe until the world is safe, and that is where vaccines are so important.

So I have to say, Paul, the work that you and your team is doing is historic.

And what’s interesting is that the molecular clamp is work that was being done for any of a number of possible diseases.

So they conceived and prepared the platform and advance, and then they applied it, in one hectic month, to come up with a vaccine candidate.

And now it is being refined, and proven, and tested, and trialled, and developed, and manufactured, and ultimately rolled out here in Australia and, we hope, around the world. So that is an extraordinary outcome.

We have invested $5 million in the research as a Commonwealth Government. More significantly, we’ve contracted 51 million doses on the basis of the medical expert panel. Australian researched, Australian developed and Australian manufactured, it's an Australian vaccine, but for the world.

So Paul, I would be delighted to invite you. Julian, if you wanted to say something. And then happy to take any questions. Paul?


Thank you, Minister. Vice Chancellor, Chancellor, And all our guests from Canberra.

This is a remarkable time for us. I reflect back on January when we first embarked on this journey, and I think we were saying at that time that we hoped that we would be in a place to be looking at a vaccine in 18 months or so, and I think we are still on track for that.

So what we are revealing today is that the early data out of the Phase 1 clinical trial says that our vaccine is safe and well tolerated when given. There's very little in way of adverse events on injection of the vaccine.

And it also induces a strong immune response, particularly in neutralising an antibody response that is equivalent to or in excess of what is seen in patients who have recovered from live virus infection.

We have also shown that the lower doses that we have been trialling have been just as effective in inducing that immune response, so that means that, into the future for CSL's manufacturer of the vaccine, the amount that they manufacture will go further in terms of the number of doses that they can distribute.

So, we, like the Minister, are hopeful that by Q3 next year, after the phase three clinical trials that CSL are planning to undertake from December are completed, and with the data that finally comes through that shows that the vaccine is effective, then with that information, it can go to regulatory approval and hopefully, distribution.

So, we're looking at that before the end of 2021.

So with that, I think I'll close. Maybe I wouldn't mind bringing over Trent and Keith to show that-to really share this team effort.

And if I can have the 100 or so people not only from here but also from our collaborating partners here as well, that would be wonderful.

So, this has been an Australia wide effort; it’s a UQ vaccine, but our partners in Melbourne and Canberra at the ANU have been instrumental in us getting to this place, as well as, of course, our partnership with CSL in the context of manufacturing.


And Julian, would you like to just add to that?


Just very briefly, I'll be quick, to thank the Minister very much for coming here to the University of Queensland.

As a community, we are so proud of the work that the University of Queensland research team are doing here.

They're very modest about it but the reality is that they are working incredibly long hours; their families are making sacrifices to make sure that they can be here working long hours on behalf of the Australian community.

And we are incredibly grateful for that and for the work that they're doing, and the fact that it is looking so positive is a testament to their hard work, and also the collaboration that they have and the incredible networks that they have with their colleagues around the world.

We know that University of Queensland has form in this. It is the home of the Gardasil vaccine, which is now used around the world to help women with cervical cancer. So we're very excited about what the team here could produce and the results, the initial results that they've created.

So thank you very much, guys, for what you're doing.


Happy to take any questions.


Of the 134 million vaccines, obviously (inaudible), how many of those realistically stay in Australia for Australians when you’re talking about supporting neighbour and other countries in the region?


So we've contracted for 134 million vaccines directly, 134.8 million, which is the 33.8 from AstraZeneca, 51 with the University of Queensland, 40 with Novavax, 10 with Pfizer. And we also have access to about 25.5 million units through what's called the COVAX facility, the international facility.

So all are available to Australia. And if there's a surplus because you never know which will be successful, it appears as if all of our contracted vaccines are on the pathway to being successful, safe and effective, which is beyond our wildest dreams, because there's never been a coronavirus vaccine before.

So, all are available to Australia. But if there's additional capacity, then we'll be supporting our neighbours.


We talk about March as well (inaudible) obviously that would be Pfizer or other vaccines in the United States. Do we (inaudible) or just keep getting the outbreaks in other countries like in the US and Europe? Does that get pushed back and then this becomes even more important, this vaccine, (inaudible)?


This is a critically important vaccine under every scenario, but our contractual dates are strong and have been reaffirmed. I've spoken with Pfizer this week; I've spoken with AstraZeneca in recent days.

Our department reaffirmed only last week, the Novavax states. So all of the vaccines are mildly ahead of anticipated schedule and that's good news for Australians and its good news for the world.


The nation’s leaders are discussing vaccine policy today. Will it hinge on which vaccine is successful, is how the policy will be?


Well, we have a multi vaccine strategy and that was the advice of Professor Brendan Murphy, Professor Paul Kelly, so our medical experts and we’ve followed that through.

And what that does is it gives us options because we'll find out as we travel through the clinical trials which vaccines are most appropriate for which age groups or people of different immunocompromised levels.

And at the moment, what appears to be the case is that we will have more than enough vaccine to vaccinate Australians three times over, which goes to the earlier question, and that gives us the opportunity to rollout more quickly.


The Pharmacy Guild is cautioned by the (inaudible) not to rush out and buy freezers to store the Pfizer vaccine.

And when do you expect pharmacies, hospitals and health care workers to know about their role in the vaccine program?


So the vaccine strategy is being considered by National Cabinet today and the National Vaccine Strategy is going to be released.

We've already put out an earlier preliminary version, so we do this in stages.

There was a first stage which was put out previously.

Today is the detailed, fully considered national strategy and then there's a third implementation phase, which will be out before Christmas.

And so, we're doing this in successive stages. But the simple answer is, by late today, we'll have additional information.

But there's no surprises that we’ll be using hospitals, we’ll be using respiratory clinics, general practices.

They are the foundation of the first round and individual states and territories may wish to set up vaccine centres, but that will come through from the discussions today in National Cabinet.

And that's our first approach and our first wave to vaccination.

And so, we're in a very fortunate situation.

And the cold chain logistics, the challenge with Pfizer that's been resolved. They have the high containment units, which are effectively, as the head of the TGA, Professor John Skerritt said, sophisticated eskies with dry ice and remote sensing.

And so, we're in an extraordinary situation, an extraordinarily fortunate situation.


So CSL, they've already manufactured this vaccine. And so, it's just waiting.


So CSL has manufactured the full amount required for the phase three clinical trials. I think, Paul, that's, you know, an achievement well ahead of what we'd been anticipating by this time. Paul might want to add to that manufacturing process. No? Or not.

I think Julian said they were very modest here at the University of Queensland.

So, the country is pulling together. It's been one of the greatest national peacetime achievements that Australia has ever witnessed and one of the greatest national achievements since the Second World War.


What can we expect to change in everyday life with the (inaudible) vaccines rolled out from March? Will it be a tangible difference or is it going to be in the norm for quite some time?


Two things. One is, the more Australians that are vaccinated the greater the internal freedoms with regards to distancing and restaurants and proximity.

And all of those rules that have made life difficult and challenging – they’ve been lifesaving – but they’ve been difficult and challenging for families and for small business owners.

And secondly, travel. And what vaccination does is it opens up the possibility of travel for Australians so as they can travel safely, they can return safely. It reduces the need for hotel quarantine if somebody’s been vaccinated, and these are really profound differences.


If the hopes for the vaccine approval and distribution are realised, what will that mean? Like, when will international borders to and from Australia open up?


So of course, one of our challenges is that even if we are fully vaccinated as a nation, we will still have people coming from overseas in a world which has very, very high caseloads.

And so, what we will want to see is that we have Australians who are vaccinated if they're looking to return without hotel quarantine, otherwise they'd still have to be subject to a quarantine in order to protect the rest of the population.

But we would also want people coming in to be clear that either they're vaccinated, or they will have to go through hotel quarantine. Because the disease won't disappear from the world overnight; this is something that we have to be honest about.

However, we can add progressive layers of safety.

We've opened a travel bubble with New Zealand, we're looking at opening travel bubbles with other low risk priority countries.

Then we'll look to, above all else, make sure we're bringing all Australians home, but then progressively open up for students, which for universities such as you U of Q and others is so critical, and then progressively to the general population.

So, it will be a progressive opening through the course of 2021.

In an ideal world, if the vaccination strategy is completed as we anticipate, then by the end of 2021 we’ll be very close to, I would put it this way, widespread international travel.


What's the pecking order in terms of the role- so, frontline workers are obviously first, aged care workers – who gets it after that (inaudible)?


So, the advice of the medical expert panel so this is what's called ATAGI, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, it's a very medical assessment, is not surprising; it's very common sense.

It's healthcare and aged care and health related workers; the elderly subject of course to the approvals, but the news from today is great for the elderly; and then, any critical service workers - that's part of the next Phase, identifying that.

But essentially, in the first round in March, we should be able to have sufficient vaccine and sufficient capability to vaccinate all of those first priority people, and then from April and May onwards, be vaccinating the general population.

We were able to vaccinate 17 million Australians for the flu this year, so you know, very close to three quarters of the Australian population were able to be vaccinated and people didn't really notice it in the sense that they went out, they did their job, they got their vaccinations, and the system worked.

So, we already have one of the world's most sophisticated vaccination networks and programs.


Just on another subject, there’s figures out showing that Australia has the second highest rate of obese men in the world.

Why isn’t Australia following the UK’s lead in introducing a sugar tax, because it shows that (inaudible)?


I think- Look, there are differing approaches to this - ours is not a tax based regime.

What we've done is we've recently struck an agreement with the drinks manufacturers of Australia, where they're looking to dramatically reduce their sugar content.

The fact that they're able to do that through an agreement, rather than through tax, guarantees a direct outcome - that's the critical thing.

The goal here is to reduce the sugar intake, and at the same time to provide the education so as we are having better eating practices, better practices in terms of consumption.

But the fact that we've already got that agreement from Australian drink makers to dramatically reduce sugar content both by 2020 and by 2025 – and we're ahead of schedule – is achieving the very outcome which a sugar tax would want to propose, but without adding prices and costs for Australian families.


I have a question from Melbourne. Has the Commonwealth Government received a request from the Victorian Government for 250 million, for an Institute of Infectious Diseases in Melbourne, after the Vic Government pledged 150 million? And what do you make of that?


Look, we've already committed $220 million to an Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness in Victoria, and so we've already committed that.

I got a message late last night from the Victorian Government. There are different approaches.

This is one, an alternative approach, the Australian Vaccine Response Alliance, which Deb and Paul and the team at the University of Queensland has put forward, so, there are differing approaches.

We've put forward $220 million, that will develop an Australian centre for disease preparedness.

And we welcome any commitment by any state government to research. I think that's great.

As to the national approach, we aren’t looking at the American or European response to COVID-19.

I tell you what, our model is the Australian model.


Can I just clarify with the 134 million (inaudible) other countries? So does that come out of those 134 million doses? or is it?


We've also provided $500 million of additional support over and above that.

So, the 134 is there for Australia because we’ll wait to see which are the most effective vaccines.

If it turns out, as is increasingly looking like as if it will be the case that all of those are successful, then we'll have what is required for Australians, what's required for safe protection for Australians, and we certainly wouldn't want to waste vaccines.

We'd make sure that those vaccines that are surplus to Australian requirements would be made available to the world.


So, if there's no surplus, feasibly all 134 million still stay in Australia then?


Correct. So, our first priority is to take care of our Australian population.

But at the same time, beyond the 134 million units, there is an additional $500 million directly to assist nations within our region. On top of that 500, if we have surplus from within our Australian stock, then we’d share that as well.


(Inaudible question)


No. No, no. We didn't want other nations to be dependent on the success or otherwise of our Australian stockpile.

But our Australian stockpile can assist if we've met, protected and exceeded all of our domestic requirements.

I better finish on that, but I do want to thank, you know, Paul and Terry and Keith, and all of the researchers who have created this truly great Australian moment. Thank you.

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