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Doorstop interview on 29 January 2021 about COVID-19

Read the transcript of a press conference with Minister Hunt on 29 January about COVID-19 update, Travel arrangements with New Zealand, Vaccine rollout; CSL production of AstraZeneca; EU delays; Germany’s claims on AstraZeneca; Novavax; Britain/UAE border closure; South African variant of the virus.

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

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I’m pleased to be able to provide an update both in terms of COVID-19 and cases in Australia, New Zealand, and our travel arrangements, and also the progress of the vaccine rollout.

Firstly, with regards to cases, the advice I have from the National Incident Centre is that again, there are zero cases of community transmission in Australia.

Significantly, zero lives lost and zero patients in ICU with COVID-19 in Australia. So that’s a really important outcome.

Importantly as well, this is the 12th consecutive day of zero cases of community transmission in Australia.

That's a testament to the work of our medical professionals, our public health teams, but Australians everywhere for the way in which they’ve observed the distancing requirements, the way they have protected each other, the way that they’ve come out for testing, with 12.88 million tests conducted in Australia on the latest advice that I have. All of these things have helped keep Australia safe.

At the same time, we’ve seen some agonising global figures. Over the last 24 hours, the advice I have is 630,000 cases, 17,422 lives lost. That's an astonishing figure in one day.

And then over the last 15 days, the National Incident Centre's advised me that across the world, we've seen approximately 9 million diagnosed cases of COVID-19 and incredibly, over 200,000 lives lost.

In terms of those trends, we have seen a slight slowing of global numbers in the last week, as opposed to the previous week, which is positive.

Sadly, the number of lives lost has continued to grow because they reflect the cases two and three weeks ago in many circumstances.

All up, 101 million cases diagnosed around the world and over 2.18 million lives lost.

All of that puts into perspective the great challenges that we’ve had in Australia, and whilst it’s been difficult, we have been mercifully spared the trauma and agony on such a massive scale from around the world.

There’s been loss, there's been heartbreak, there's been hardship and we acknowledge all of those.

All very important, but the comparison between where Australia is and where the rest of the world is, I think, is an immensely powerful reminder of Australia's circumstances.

If you'd asked me a year ago, can you imagine a circumstance where Australia was at zero cases but the world was at over 630,000 cases in a day, I would have struggled to have been so bold as to make that prediction. So, our efforts are extraordinary.

In terms of New Zealand, I’ve just spoken with the Acting Chief Medical Officer, Professor Michael Kidd. His advice is that after talking with New Zealand health authorities, there have been no further community cases.

They’re doing a tremendous job, a tremendous job, in terms of widespread testing of staff relating to the hotel quarantine facility, guests, contacts, and community.

And this provides a basis for them to be reconsidering the current travel pause for the green zone on a 24-hour basis. So, they’ll be considering tomorrow.

And if there are continued excellent results out of New Zealand, which is commensurate with their entire performance over the course of the pandemic, then we hope to be in a position to resume that in the coming days, and I think that should give hope to everybody who is looking at friends or family arriving from New Zealand.

We’ve had over 16,500 Australians arrive since October the 16th, or people coming to Australia from New Zealand, whether they’re returning Australians or New Zealanders or other nationals that are coming from New Zealand – 16,500 thousand arrivals since 16 October.

We will continue that program and we look to be able to recommence it at the earliest possible time.

The news is good. And the AHPPC, which has been fearless in its medical advice and we have been scrupulous in following that advice, will be reviewing every 24 hours with a view to commencing as early as possible, and if things continue as they are, we hope to have good news before the end of the weekend.

Now, finally with regards to vaccines, I can reaffirm the advice provided by the Prime Minister and myself, after working with our major vaccine suppliers, that Australia remains on track for a late February commencement of the vaccine rollout.

Our timeframes have been reaffirmed by both Pfizer and AstraZeneca during the course of this week.

In addition, we’ve seen positive test results for a third of our major vaccine suppliers, Novavax, an up to 89 per cent efficacy in its major clinical trial in the UK - that’s called a phase three trial.

And that also gives us a sense to be able to step back and reflect that the world has a small number of vaccines that are in advanced phase three clinical stage or beyond.

We’ve been fortunate to select three. All up, we made five vaccine contracts – Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Novavax, the University of Queensland, and what’s called the COVAX Facility, an international facility.

Four out of the five are proceeding and at this stage, we expect a strong vaccine supply, with the commencement in late February and the completion on track before the end of October.

And there’ll be challenges. Every day, we see the stories from around the world. Every day, we will see stories from around the world, but having a sovereign vaccine manufacturing capability, having strong contracts and being well-prepared puts us in one of the strongest positions of any nation.

I’ll start by taking calls from over the phone and I think Natasha is first.


Thank you very much, Minister. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that there has been manufacturing problems at the CSL plant in relation to the AstraZeneca vaccine early on in the process. As far back as November, there were low yields being experienced. Can you please update us on that?

And can I also ask in relation to the 50 million doses of the vaccine being produced by CSL, is it guaranteed that all of those 50 million doses will go to Australians, or is there any possibility that any of it could be shipped offshore to fulfil AstraZeneca's other contractors in Europe?


Sure. With regards to the 50 million doses of onshore production of the AstraZeneca vaccine by CSL, firstly, we’re not just on track but we announced this week that we’re ahead of schedule for the delivery of the CSL doses. The first doses have been brought forward to an expected late March supply of approximately 1 million per week.

And our current guidance is that we will receive approximately 2 million doses during the course of late March from CSL of the AstraZeneca vaccine as it’s produced here in Australia.

I’m not aware of any specific details with regards to earlier questions, but I can say that this week, we’ve had guidance that brings forward the supply of CSL.

So, as we look around the world, we recognise that countries such as the United States, Canada, the UK, we see the European nations, that are all managing the great challenge of production issues in both the Pfizer and the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Our figures take into account the production challenges in the European regulatory conditions, and so, that was already built into this statement on Monday, but has been reaffirmed that we remain on track.

Always, we’re subject to production and distribution and shipping challenges anywhere in the world but having that domestic onshore production is a national security.

And with regards to the 50 million doses, they’re a direct contract between the Australian Government and CSL and therefore delivery here in Australia, and we don't see any circumstances under which they wouldn’t be provided in full to Australia.

Okay. Jane.


Hello. Just in regards to, you know, you talk about potential shipping issues and that sort of thing. The reports today about the EU potentially withholding or delays in delivering vaccines; can respond to that?

And also can you respond to Germany’s claims on AstraZeneca and there not being enough evidence that the vaccine is effective in people aged over 65?


Sure, with regards to the EU, the current production and regulatory settings have been taken into account in our earlier guidance.

But I have spoken with the Foreign Minister Marise Payne today, and the Foreign Minister has confirmed that DFAT will be making representations through the World Health Organization and through various European agencies and to relevant countries, about ensuring that our supply is guaranteed on a continuous basis.

We understand that the whole world has to deal with supply shocks and therefore our volumes have been appropriately set out this week, but the Foreign Minister has confirmed today that Australia will be making representations through the World Health Organization and through Europe, with regards to ensuring that the vaccine supplies and certainty for Australia.

Then in relation to AstraZeneca, we’ve had a very clear position that the TGA, or the Therapeutic Goods Administration, makes full consideration of all data available to them.

That is clinical trial data, that’s the position of other regulators, and they very clearly have said that they will make a decision based on safety and effectiveness, and that safety has and always will be the number one priority.

I understand that yesterday, Professor John Skerritt, the head of the TGA, spoke with the Senate Committee. In particular, he noted that there was no evidence in relation to any risk with regards to effectiveness or other elements, with regards to over 65 being negative.

But they will take the advice of our vaccines advisory group, led by Professor Cheng, and in addition to that, they will take into account all of the information.

The UK have reaffirmed its own guidance today. With regard to the safety and effectiveness of that particular vaccine for over 65s. I understand that Professor Adam Finn, who’s a member of the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation in the United Kingdom, said: we have no concerns about the safety of the vaccine in any age group, and they will continue to do that.

So, countries will take different approaches. Our approach will be led by what we believe to be the best medical regulator in the world – the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

They are strong, they are independent, they are fearless, they are exactly what you’d want, they are thorough and we will be guided by them on all of their judgements. Sally?


On the AstraZeneca vaccine – first question – do you have a backup plan if the TGA makes a similar recommendation and says: don’t give it to over 65s; will we need to order more of, say, the Pfizer vaccine?

And then separately, on the Novavax vaccine, what roles do you see that vaccine playing in our rollout strategy, and when could we see that come to Australia?


Sure. Firstly, with regards to AstraZeneca, again, the assessment, approval and any terms or conditions, are exclusively a matter for the Australian medical regulator, the TGA.

But as a government in working with the committee led by Professor Brendan Murphy, we are prepared for a range of roll out options, depending on any conditions that are imposed or elements that are put in place by the TGA.

We are already prepared for all of the possible options. We have a total vaccine supply of approximately 140 million doses for a population of 25.5 million, requiring two doses per person, so we have strong levels of vaccine, but we also have a range of options for roll out, which have already been prepared for all circumstances. I think that is a really important question.

With regards to Novavax, again, we'll have to see and understand the full international data and that will be both the vaccines advisory committee and that will be the work of the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

We are expecting that Novavax will be available, as we have always set out, in the second half of the year.

So, it could serve one of two purposes, it could be either a primary vaccine, if that was required, and we are always in the hands of medicine and evidence, or secondly, it could be a subsequent vaccine, if like the flu, further years of vaccination are required.

And Professor Murphy this week and all of our medical advisors have been absolutely clear throughout that we don’t yet know, not Australia, but the whole world does not yet know the longevity of immunity.

That will be determined in what will be the greatest global vaccination program the world has yet seen. There will be ample evidence for the world but that evidence is not yet known.

So, Novavax serves those two purposes of being there either as a primary vaccine option, pending any issues that may arise with regards to either the efficacy or the production of our current vaccines, or, as is more likely the case, it’s there as the potential for subsequent vaccination, if any further revaccination were required on a global scale, simply on the basis of immunity.

So, the strategy has been very carefully constructed. I have to say, as has always been the case with Professor Murphy and the extraordinary team that’s built around him, they’ve considered all of the options and contingencies, and we have work to make sure that all of the options and contingencies.

I know for Australians, this is a period where they look around the world and they understandably and rightly ask questions about global production and global supply and global efficacy.

We have prepared with five different options initially – University of Queensland, sadly, didn’t proceed, but we back the decision that was taken not to proceed with that.

We now have four different vaccine options, through Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Novavax and the COVAX facility.

We have 140 million doses, we have an onshore facility, and then we are able to vary it, as we did, for example- as we did when we saw that we needed to adapt once the University of Queensland wasn’t available. What we’d built into the existing contracts we were able to trigger, with regards to options.

So, that flexibility is there and we recognise that it’s a fast moving situation.

But the deep, long-term strategy of commencing in late February, subject to ensuring that shipping continues as envisaged, and completion in particular by the end of October, remains on track.

Okay, Nour.


Thank you Minister. Just on another issue, can you give us any information about what impact the UK travel ban will have on Australians trying to get home via Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and will

this precipitate further government (inaudible) supplies out of that region?


So, on the particular airline impacts, I will respectfully leave that for the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for Home Affairs to address.

But what we have shown is that if more flights are needed, more will be provided. If more flights are needed, more will be provided.

We added an extra 20 specific charters, which Simon Birmingham announced a few weeks ago.

They were done to make sure that more Australians could come home, so we will have to examine the impact of those particular changes, which we understand and which we respect.

And the guidance to Australians is very, very clear, and the Prime Minister has been clear: if more flights are needed, more will be provided.

And then we have Sue, Sue Dunlevy from News Corp.


Minister, thank you very much. We have seen the emergence of some highly infectious new variants of the COVID-19 virus, in particular the South African version. Reporting today, the Novavax team said that this vaccine was far less effective against this variant than it was against the oldest strains of the virus. Moderna and Pfizer also announced they are working on a special booster variation of their vaccines to cope with the South African variant.

Is Australia in talks with these pharmaceutical companies to purchase supplies of these newer type of vaccines that would be effective against this highly infectious variant?


Sure. Look, I’d be cautious on making judgements on existing vaccines against the variants at this point in time. That will remain a matter for the vaccines advisory committee and medical regulator.

We have very strong relationships with the companies, and at this stage, we don't have advice that further changes are required.

But if we do receive that advice, then as we've done, one of the hallmarks of our approach has been to prepare and to adapt.

Often that preparation will be done behind the scenes because of a highly competitive international environment.

A lot of our work was done behind the scenes on masks, behind the scene on test kits, behind the scenes on ventilators. And the purchasing agreements are- which we've had, have been done behind the scenes with relation to vaccine.

It is a highly competitive, highly commercial environment. So, I hope you'd understand that we wouldn't pre-empt those.

But I think what Australians can be assured is, as we have shown all along, with over $18.5 billion invested, being ahead of the curve with regard to masks, test kits, ventilators, getting in early to have the security of contracts both offshore and onshore and one of the highest dosing rates in the world, that if more is needed, more will be provided.

And I think that's an important question. So, we're prepared, but at this point in time, the advice remains that the vaccines that we have are the right vaccines for the circumstance.

But as this pandemic continues to evolve, if Australians evolve, then we are in a position to be able to adapt.


Can I ask about the national booking system that patients are going to have to use to book an appointment with their GP to get a vaccination? When will that roll out? And could you explain to people how that's going to work?


Sure. Our goal for the public is to have a very simple access approach. So, as you can phone your GP, you can phone the state clinics, or you can come through a single front door.

So, to give people different options, because they will all be in different circumstances. But it all ends up with them being able to easily book.

And so we’re working quietly behind the scenes with the states to make sure that we've got that simple, single front door for people, whether it is online, whether it's through telephone, depending on their circumstances. They will also be able to go direct to their GPs.

I can update that we were looking for up to a thousand points of presence around the country. Whilst the expression of interest process for general practices is still not closed yet, we now have well over a thousand general practice expressions of interest alone. So, well ahead of schedule. More than anticipated.

And I do want to thank our general practice community. The numbers have been faster and greater than we'd ever anticipated, and that means that more Australians will have better access all around the country.

And I think that's a great place to finish. And again, zero cases today. Zero lives lost. Zero Australians in ICU, and 12 consecutive days of zero cases and that's a testament and a tribute to the work of Australians everywhere. Thank you.

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