This content relates to a former minister

Doorstop interview on 28 December 2020

Read the transcript of a press conference with Minister Hunt about additions to PBS, COVID vaccines, pre-flight testing, hotel quarantine systems and update on new strains.

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

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I want to thank Australians for their work and their contribution during what has been a different and, in some cases, difficult Christmas. But it’s been a safe Christmas, and that’s been immensely important.

When we look outside of Australia’s borders and we see now over 80 million cases diagnosed, agonizingly over 1,750,000 million lives lost, we recognise that which could have been in Australia as opposed to that which is.

And that’s an incredible testament to the difficulty and the challenges Australians have faced during the course of 2020, but also the way in which they have responded.

Only this morning, in the morning briefing from the Chief Medical Officer and the Department of Health, the Prime Minister was reflecting on the incredible discipline and spirit of Australians and the immense capacity with which our health system, our pathologists and others have approached this year’s challenges, again, over the course of the recent days.

One of the things we’ve had to do, of course, is manage our general health system and not to forget the immensely important task of managing cardiovascular disease, of musculo-skeletal conditions, and in particular, cancer.

Because we know that in any one year, over 48,000 Australians tragically lose their lives to cancer.  And cancer does not take a break.

And so one of those conditions which takes over 1,000 lives a year is the blood cancer multiple myeloma, and I am delighted to be able to announce that from the first of January, Australians will have access to a new medicine for multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that takes over 1,000 lives a year, on PBS.

Darzalex would otherwise cost over $160,000. 1,165 Australians will now benefit from Darzalex being available at as little as $6.60 a dose. From $160,000 to $6.60 a dose, but most importantly, longer lives, better lives, the potential to save lives, and that’s what the PBS is about, and that’s what protects Australians.

And to be able to offer this hope in the New Year for over 1,165 Australians is an immensely important national gift and step forward, and I’m just privileged to be able to work with the Prime Minister and the Treasurer on providing this PBS support.

And at the same time, another condition which can be agonizing, it can be so profound in general health consequences as well as in physical consequences is psoriasis.

Psoriasis can take many different forms of skin irritation, but severe psoriasis can be physically damaging, but it can also have a mental health impact.

The chronic pain, the chronic irritation, or the fear of going out in public, and to have something which can potentially be a cure, or if not a cure a profoundly important way in reducing impacts in Otezla, a new medicine which will also be listed on the PBS is just a wonderful, wonderful piece of news for over 5,000 Australians who’ll save up to $7,500 a year.

Multiple myeloma, the skin condition psoriasis, to have solutions or improvements for, between them, over 6,000 patients starting from 1 January, to save the funds, but most importantly to provide the access is a wonderful way to start the year.

It’s a New Year with hope, and we enter the New Year with hope for COVID as well. The results in New South Wales are extraordinary. The New South Wales public has stepped up.

Over 200,000 tests in the last five days, an average of 40,000 tests, but I would urge people on the Northern Beaches, in Greater Sydney, in New South Wales and around Australia to continue to be tested.

These tests are so important. They play a fundamental role going forwards, and if you can be tested, it might be an inconvenience, but it could ultimately protect your life and protect the lives of others. So please, keep coming forwards.

At the same time, the contact tracing in New South Wales has shown itself to be the gold standard.

The Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, reflected this morning that the New South Wales outbreak could potentially have been far more significant than Victoria.

The difference was the way in which the public stepped up and the way, in particular, in which the contact tracing was able to operate in real time to track down cases. Those outcomes are so important. They are fundamental.

In particular, we now know that the advice from the Chief Medical Officer is that the effective rate of reproduction – or what’s known as the REF – is 0.61 amongst the active cases in the Northern Beaches area.

We have seen aged care have over 30 facilities tested and come back negative for every resident.

There was one case announced approximately a week ago in relation to a staff member; no further staff members and zero residents across 30 facilities, and that’s immensely important, and we continue to have the joint operations centre working with New South Wales.

In addition, what we’ve also seen is the Australian Defence Force around the country with 1,600 active service personnel as part of COVID assist, as well as what they're doing in relation to bushfire preparedness, as well as what they're doing with the critical work in the Pacific following on from the cyclone.

So, I want to thank all of our Defence personnel who have worked right through the Christmas break and supporting people in Australia.

And lastly, I want to reflect on vaccines. We've had some very important news.

We see the AstraZeneca vaccine is making progress both in the UK, in the US, and in Europe. I've been briefed this morning by the global head of AstraZeneca and the Australian head of AstraZeneca.

Our vaccine program is on track and ahead of schedule. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is progressing well both in terms of results and in terms of its passage through the UK, US and European processes – I’ll let them speak for themselves.

They have submitted additional data within Australia and we're expecting the final data for consideration in late January to early February.

Pfizer should be complete during January. AstraZeneca will be late January to early February, and we have our confirmation of supplies from the global head only this morning - both international supplies and domestic production which is being done here in Australia by CSL.

Our Pfizer contract has been completed with the confirmation of distribution to Australia also locked in over the course of Christmas with our Department of Health officials working literally right through Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

So I want to thank all of those who have been involved; to say to Australians who have been tested, you have done a magnificent job, but please keep coming forward to be tested.

And for New Year's Eve, stay safe, stay out of the Sydney CBD - the message from the Premier could not be clearer. And as a Commonwealth Government, we support and reaffirm that advice.

But Australians have been magnificent this year, and they've been magnificent over Christmas - and the proof is literally in the pudding.

The fact that Australians have been able to gather together safely while those in other parts of the world have been all too sadly prevented, and in some cases we see hospital systems under immense and profound challenged in the most developed of all communities.

That says that what we've been doing is working, we'll continue to do it, and we'll continue to keep Australians safe.

Happy to take any questions, I think, starting with Tamsin.


Thanks Minister. I just have three questions, but they’re on the same topics - if you’ll bear with me.

The U.S has implemented a need for people coming from the UK to test negative before boarding a flight to the US. Is that something we're considering here?

And given the highly contagious nature of this strain in the UK, are there any other measures that the hotel quarantine systems, taking customers from the UK at the moment, should be implementing?

And also, just in- a data update - how many cases of the new strain have been confirmed in Australia now?


Sure. So firstly, in terms of the testing as opposed to the hotel quarantine, Australia has arguably the most rigorous entry limitations in the world. There are a couple of jurisdictions that match that. But 14-day quarantine is not widely used in the rest of the world.

On the discussion with the Prime Minister only this morning, the chief medical officer reaffirmed that although it's tough, although it is exacting, although many would find it difficult, and having been through quarantine twice myself, I understand how challenging it can be.

His view, the chief medical officer's view, is that Australia should not reduce that requirement in favour of a pretesting arrangement.

That the highest standard in the world is the 14-day hotel quarantine, and we won't be relinquishing that for anybody else.

So that will remain our standard, the lesser standard of test and travel is not something that we think is sufficiently safe for the Australian context.


Can't we do both, though?


Well, the best advice from the chief medical officer only this morning is the right approach for Australia is the approach of the hotel quarantine, they have concerns that a test does not in any way guarantee that someone is not symptomatic when they fly, or when they arrive in Australia.

Only that 14 days provides the full guarantee that Australians require.

But the medical expert panel will continue to review advice from around the world, and if they believe that other measures are necessary they'll adopt them.

But they won't be watering down that Australian approach. The additional questions, please.


Sorry. Yes, just further on that, how many cases of the virus are now - the UK strain - are now confirmed in Australia?


Look, I’ll refer that to the Department of Health and they will provide a statement this afternoon. We haven't had the update this morning, so, I’ll let the Department of Health provide that in writing to you today.

And then, in terms of the strengthening of hotel quarantine, we've had two rounds of review. We’ve had, firstly, the Halton review, where Jane Halton has looked and made recommendations for all states and territories - overwhelmingly found it to be one of the strongest systems in the world.

We thank Victoria for adopting the recommendations, and they have implemented a new system, a dramatically new system which we believe is strong and effective and vastly stronger and more effective than it was previously. Other states and territories were already strong but have adopted the Halton reviews.

At the same time, Alan Finkel, the Chief Scientist, has reviewed the testing and tracing systems, but that has implications for hotel quarantine, and again, all states and territories have adopted those measures.

We also have a clinical evidence team, and they're reviewing advice and evidence from around the world.

And so I think that's a very important thing for Australians to understand, that there's constant review feeding into the medical expert panel from communicable disease experts and the finest researchers in the country.

I think Steph from the ABC.


Thanks Minister. I’ve got two questions. I’ll just start with one. What did you learn from the briefing from AstraZeneca today? Can you provide significant details?


Yes, I can. There are two important developments with regards to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

First, it's not just on track, but we're hopeful we will have both domestic production and international imports ahead of schedule. And I think that's reassuring, reaffirming, and an important point of hope.

Secondly, that their progress through the international regulators is also ahead of where I had previously understood it to have been. The results are good, and I think that’s the important thing. They’re early.

They don't have all of the data in yet, but the results are good. And that means that we will have, subject to our Australian regulators agreeing, a safe, effective, and plentiful vaccine.

And we've set March as our commencement date. I’ll continue to provide that, but we are ahead of schedule, and our approach is to under promise and over deliver and always to make sure not only do we have a safe and effective vaccine, but we have the strongest safety and assessment processes through what I think is arguably the best regulator in the world in the TGA.


Minister, the CEO of AstraZeneca, as I'm sure you're aware, claims that the COVID-19 vaccine is just as effective as Pfizer and Moderna, but the data for that hasn't been released.

So should we be sceptical about this statement, given the information is yet to be made public?


No, I've actually tested exactly those questions this morning with the global head of AstraZeneca, Pascal Soriot. And we’ve spoken today, and they have always sought to, in my view, set expectations lower and then to over deliver.

And I think that's a very wise approach. Our regulators are increasingly confident that the choices that we've made are likely to be backed up by regulatory approval.

They're the choices of the medical expert panel, then backed and put into action by the Government.

And so, what we're seeing is the world is likely to be in the fortunate position of having a number of vaccines that are highly effective.

We are in the fortunate position of having three vaccines at this stage, all of which are on track to being highly effective, available, and then rolled out safely across the Australian population.



Minister, Merry Christmas to you. Just with the planned rollout of the vaccine, where do teachers sit in this? Because the [indistinct] any plans to move teachers higher up the order to reduce the potential for spread in those environments?

And secondly, the difference between the Pfizer vaccine and the AstraZeneca vaccine, clearly there's issues around storage, the AstraZeneca one is easier and cheaper to make. The Government has already 53 million of those, compared with 10 million of the Pfizer.

What’s your justification and reasoning behind that? Just responses to those two questions please, Minister.


Well again, the choice of vaccines and the volume of the vaccines has been recommended by Professor Brendan Murphy's panel. That includes the Chief Medical Officer but also the heads of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation.

So, as has always been the case, the selection of vaccines is very, very much - as it should be - a matter for medical expertise.

They’ve chosen it on the basis of what they believe will be safe and effective, and we’ve ordered it in the volumes that they have recommended. And that's the basis on which they have made those choices.

One important consideration is that the world has never had what’s called an mRNA vaccine before. Pfizer and Moderna are both mRNA vaccines.

The Oxford AstraZeneca is a viral vector vaccine, and the Novavax is a protein vaccine. And so there are three different vaccines.

And the mRNA is however new and not previously used for any form of communicable disease on all of the advice that I have. So that's why they’ve approached that on the basis that they have.

And I think the latest advice will be very, very good news for Australians, that Pfizer is progressing well, Oxford is progressing well, and whilst we await more data on Novavax, the last advice we have is that it is progressing well.

It's likely that Pfizer will have the first of the approvals in Australia, on the latest advice from the TGA, and we've been working with them and signing the final agreement on distribution. And we'll begin with whichever vaccine has first approval and delivery.

The Oxford vaccine, we're expecting 3.8 million units in Australia before the end of February with production of the first batch in Australia already complete, and now it goes to what’s called the fill and finish.

So if you think of it as the production and then the bottling, as it were, or the fill and finish, to use the formal term, is the next phase. And both of those are slightly ahead of schedule, and I think that's positive.

Anything else, Jonathan?


Yes Minister, just on the teachers question, is there any proposal or consideration for moving teachers higher up the order to reduce the risk of spread in those environments? Tight-knit, closely knit groups?


Sure. So the medical expert panel has provided the early guidance, and that is that it will be, not surprisingly, as has been the case around the world, we begin with our health and medical workers, with our elderly aged care residents, and in particular, as well, with the front-line workers in the quarantine scheme.

That's where the risk of spread is deemed to be the greatest. They will then provide further advice on subsequent grounds.

And so, I won't pre-empt that, but we'll continue to follow whatever is the medical expert advice, as we do with other vaccines.



Thank you, Minister. Just quickly, the CEO of AstraZeneca, his phrase in the headlines in the UK was: they’ve got a winning formula.

Based on your briefings with the CEO this morning, do you agree? Is it a winning formula?


I do think that with AstraZeneca and Pfizer, we have two of the vaccines that will be most readily available and widely available, safe, and effective, and after that Novavax is also looking very good.

So I would put it this way: the advice from AstraZeneca is of great hope for Australians, and the advice from the regulators is of great hope regarding both the early vaccines, Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

In short, I think it will be a good New Year for Australians, but I also think it will be safe and healthy New Year for Australians.

Anything else, Chloe?


You’ve mentioned a couple of times, not only today, but in previous press conferences, ahead of schedule, well on track.

Is there any likelihood that we would see the vaccine rolled out earlier than March?


Our guidance remains March, and our approach is to under promise and over deliver. We are in the hands of the data.

So, what drives the time frame, really there are three elements: we have to have the data, which comes from the international clinical trials, and we're expecting the final data in late January from both of the leading candidates; then we have to make sure that we actually test the physical stock, and plans are underway to do that.

That's a 14-day process. It's not something that has necessarily been done in other countries that are facing a life-threatening emergency of hundreds or thousands of lives lost per day, but it's something which the regulator absolutely recommends for Australia.

To say that we would release batches without having that done 14-day safety test of the actual batch is not something they're recommending and not something we would ever want to bypass in Australia.

And then finally, there is the distribution. But all three of those, they're ahead of schedule.

So the simple answer is we'll stick by our March time frame, but our goal is always under promise, over deliver, and we expect that Australians will be fully vaccinated by the end of October, on the basis of it's free, it's universal, and it's entirely voluntary.

But we want to urge as many Australians to be vaccinated, and we've seen some very heartening reports over the weekend of an expected uptake of up to 80 per cent.

We would like to see as many Australians as possible be vaccinated, but in order to do that, they have to have the confidence that our regulators are making sure that every safety step is ticked, and we're ticking all of those boxes just a little bit earlier than expected.

Alright. Thank you very much, everybody. Take care.

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