Doorstop interview on 6 May 2020 about COVID-19
Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's doorstop interview in Melbourne about coronavirus (COVID-19).
The Hon Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
Thanks everyone. Welcome to the Lifeblood centre here in Frankston. It’s where they collect blood and plasma for the benefit of all Australians.
As part of that, I’m delighted to be joined by Cath Stone from Red Cross and Lifeblood, and also from Charmaine Gittleson, and Charmaine is the Chief Medical Officer for one of Australia’s great company’s, and indeed the world’s leading blood product company, CSL.
Today is about Australia leading the world, saving lives and protecting lives through breakthrough research.
We know that there are almost 6000 Australians who have already recovered from COVID-19.
Their blood and the plasma that comes from it will be taken by CSL, on a voluntary basis obviously, and Australia will help lead the world in trials, and those trials will be focussing, in particular, on creating what’s called convalescent plasma, and the convalescent plasma can be used for a hyperimmune treatment.
Now, of course, it's early stages but it's promising, so we don't want to overpromise.
But in particular, this treatment has the potential to assist those people who are facing extreme conditions, ones who are in ICU, those that are in an advanced stage of the effects of COVID-19.
And so, Australia is leading the world in research and treatment, CSL is helping to lead the world in research and treatment, and they will begin their production in Australia in the latter part of this year.
More broadly, I'd like to address Australia and where we're at with our containment and capacity structure, as well as our recovery.
In terms of containment, of course, our border measures continue in place, in terms of our testing we now have over 672,000 tests that have occurred around Australia.
And it continues to be, on the basis of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical medical assessment, the most accurate testing regime in the world – and that's just a tribute to our pathologists, our public health units, our hospitals, our doctors and our nurses, and I want to again thank them for their courage and their professionalism.
In terms of our tracing, our public health units around the country are chasing down every new case and doing an extraordinary job.
I'm delighted that Australia has now passed five million downloads and registrations of the COVIDSafe app – a technology sector leader said to me yesterday that it took Facebook 10 months globally to achieve their first one million users, Australians together have, in less than 10 days, achieved five million downloads and registrations, and that's an extraordinary achievement.
More to be done, but we're ahead of schedule, we're achieving what we’d hoped.
And I want to thank and honour all of those Australians who are participating in this national cause of making it easier to find those who might be yet undiagnosed but have been in contact.
And this is about saving lives and protecting lives, as is our research.
In terms of the difficult isolation measures, the National Cabinet met yesterday and is making very clear progress towards a recovery plan that they are seeking to finalise and release on Friday.
And as the Prime Minister said, that's a reward for the hard work of Australians, to recognise that the lives that we’ve saved and protected together, put us in a position to begin that path to recovery.
With regards to capacity, we’ve now reached over 7.5 million telehealth consultations, with regards to our aged care, we are seeing that, although there are challenges, there are extraordinary controls right across the country.
And in our hospitals, I can now say that there have been- there are 66 people in hospital, 27 in ICUs, and we are down to 18 on ventilators, and each reduction means that fewer people are at risk of losing their lives to coronavirus – and in particular, this is again, a tribute to our extraordinary nursing and hospital professionals.
With regards to our research, what CSL is doing is that they are seeking 800 donations of plasma, what’s known as convalescent plasma, through Lifeblood Australia, from those nearly 6000 Australians, precisely 5964, who have so far recovered from coronavirus.
Every one of those cases is one to be celebrated, but every one of those cases can help unlock the potential treatment of using immunoglobulin from that convalescent plasma, to protect and treat those Australians who are most ill, most gravely at risk of serious complications or indeed losing their lives.
It's not a guarantee but it's promising, and it's part of the broader research in vaccines, preventions and treatments, which Australia is overseeing.
At the same time, I'm also delighted to announce a round of 17 projects and $33 million through the Medical Research Future Fund Genomics Mission today – and these projects include children's illnesses, illnesses such as dealing with the risk of early stage genetic conditions for children.
Projects such as early diagnosis of sepsis during the University of Queensland, using genomic profiling, projects such as diagnosing cancers where there is an unknown primary, being led by the University of Melbourne, or epilepsy, or diagnosing the risk of stillbirth and helping to take steps to protect against such an agonising loss.
So, Australian medical research continues to proceed outside of our coronavirus tasks, with the round of activities from the Genomics Mission, but there's specific research of Australia at the global forefront of protection against coronavirus with today's announcement that CSL will make Australia one of its leading global manufacturing sites for convalescent plasma.
With that, I'm delighted to invite Doctor Charmaine Gittleson, the Chief Medical Officer of CSL, to come to the microphone. Charmaine?
Thank you, Minister. I am delighted to be here today on behalf of CSL Behring to share with you more details of this research announcement.
As I start, I'd like to note that the Australian and Commonwealth and state governments have done a fantastic job in helping control the community spread of coronavirus, thus protecting us, as well as flattening the curve and assisting in diminishing the impact on our hospital systems.
That said, there are still the theoretical risk of a second wave of virus, and the work that we are doing really adds to the arsenal of agents that could be useful if a resurgence occurs.
The CSL will be commencing in Australia the research and development of a hyperimmune product, a product that is very specific to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 disease.
A hyperimmune is a product which specifically prepares the immunoglobulins directed against a disease of interest.
It's made by taking plasma that people who have recovered from an illness donate, and is then taken through specific manufacturing steps in order to provide this concentrated product that has the right amount of immunoglobulin in it to provide treatment.
There are a number of steps that we will need to go through and this include research and development.
Initially, what we will do is take some plasma from convalescent patients and we’ll use that to finalise and standardise the testing that is required to confirm the neutralising antibodies – those antibodies that can bind to the virus and infect a patient and neutralise them.
This is technologically difficult work and CSL in Australia will be leading this work and sharing its findings in this regard.
We aim to make a scalable, reproducible process that is a- that we’re able to then roll out more broadly.
Following that, we will take the product that we make from an increased number of donors and we’ll place it into clinical trials – clinical trials that will be done in Australia using plasma donated by Australians – and we'll collaborate with Australian hospitals and Australian clinicians.
The size of the clinical trial is really to be negotiated with the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the TGA, our regulator, but we think somewhere between 50 and 100 patients, so that we can demonstrate that this product is safe to use in patients with COVID-19 and is effective in neutralising the virus.
And the types of patients that would receive this under a clinical trial are those patients infected with the virus, who are in hospital, and who are starting to have difficulty with their breathing - they have shortness of breath or they have what is known as air hunger but they’re not yet on mechanical ventilation.
In these patients, the virus has infected the cells of their lungs and it's multiplying, and when it multiples like this, it actually causes death of those lung cells.
And that’s why patients start to have difficulty in their breathing.
If the virus is not neutralised by the patient's own immune system, they then progress to go into intensive care units and need to go onto ventilation.
So we are hoping that this immunoglobulin, if given to patients who are in hospital, it can help prevent the progression of severe respiratory distress and the need for mechanical ventilation.
If the study is positive, we would then take this and have it registered with the TGA and then made available via the National Blood Authority and through the Australian Fractionation Agreement that CSL has.
I'd like to, in advance of handing over to Lifeblood, thank Lifeblood for their collaboration in this because the plasma that is collected by them is critical to the success of this project.
And in advance, I'd like to thank all of those people that will step forward to donate.
With that, I'd like to hand over. Thanks.
Good morning. And on behalf of the team at Lifeblood, I would like to thank the Minister and CSL for the opportunity to be here this morning for this fabulous announcement.
This is the first time that Lifeblood will participate in the collection of convalescent plasma and we're so excited to be joining the fight against COVID-19.
As you may be aware, and Charmaine’s alluded too, convalescent plasma is the liquid part of blood that contains the antibodies.
Once someone has recovered from COVID-19, those antibodies are available in their plasma to help the fight against the virus.
We are in a unique position to help with the collections of these donations and we will commence that from Monday next week.
The plasma we will collect will treat patients in two different ways.
In clinical trials, first, patients will have it available through- who are unwell, will have plasma component available by transfusion.
Secondly, we will send the plasma to CSL for use in their new medication, in COVID-19 immunoglobulin.
Donating plasma is a simple and powerful way to help other Australians.
And so for those recovered donors, we’re asking them to come forward and participate in this donation call.
The collection process is similar to a standard plasm donation. The difference for recovered donors is they need to be free of symptoms from COVID-19 for 28 days before they can come in and they need to meet all our other donation criteria.
Overseas we’ve seen a willingness for recovered donors to participate in this trial and we expect no different from the generosity of Australian’s that typically come forward to donate.
If you are eligible, then the best way is to contact our contact centre on 13 14 95, mention to the team that you are a recovered donor and they will make an appointment for you in the coming days, or you can find more information on lifeblood.com.au.
Happy to take any questions and we’ll start, obviously, with Candice and James and then go to those that are on the phone. Candice.
My question was going to be if there’s any chance of getting overseas donations, but it does sound like this program that’s in place (inaudible).
Yes that’s right. CSL is cooperating around the world but they’ve made Australia one of their global centres and we’re fortunate to have a company like CSL here in Australia.
And they’re very focused on making sure that Australia’s not just part of the production but that Australian patients are amongst the first to have global access to this treatment. James.
On the tracing app, is it working properly on Apple iPhones? And do you concede there are still some issues?
No. Yes, it is working and it’s working well. We had the fortune of seeing what Singapore went through.
One of the global iss- questions in relation to iPhones is Bluetooth apps more generally and how they work together.
We’re in the fortunate position that we have stripped down this app so it is the most basic, the simplest form.
It was designed with the operating system in mind and at the same time we understand that there’s a global upgrade which Apple is doing in conjunction with Google which will further strengthen it.
But the simple answer – working, yes; working as it was intended to, yes; and we are well ahead of schedule on our cooperation both with the states and with our downloads and registrations.
When will contact tracers be able to access that information?
This week is the advice that we have. And we had expected it to have been further down the track, we’ve been able to bring that forward and so I’m really pleased at the cooperation with the states.
Their public health units are doing a great job but this will assist them to find other cases, to protect people and to protect our health workers earlier than we’d otherwise anticipated.
Now, I have some on line, I think Tamsin, if you’re first.
Yeah. Thank you, Minister. It’s come to light that the first employee from a Melbourne meatworks to test positive to COVID-19 was found weeks before it was discovered to be a cluster, which has obviously now (inaudible) across Melbourne.
Authorities chose not to name this business despite naming schools where outbreak had occurred.
Are you concerned that this (inaudible)? What actions will you take in response to this development?
And just further on that, this morning Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, has said that some of the Commonwealth abattoir inspectors had also been to the facility and then gone to others and he wanted an investigation into that.
What’s your understanding of that investigation?
Firstly, in relation to the Commonwealth, I understand that David Littleproud is making sure that all inspectors are safe.
Then more generally, public health units around the country had been dealing with an unprecedented challenge.
The states run the public health units and one of the things we're doing is providing the app precisely so as to give them automated assistance for what they are doing manually.
But I think they're all doing an amazing job.
When you look at Australia's position where, compared with the rest of the world we have flattened the curve.
But we always warned, always warned that there could be spikes or outbreaks in any one particular place. And that's what we're seeing now.
Generally, the country has overwhelmingly flattened the curve but particular outbreaks have been warned and that's why we have strong testing regimes, strong tracing regimes, and why the app is ever more important.
And I think that these things all come together.
So I will put in my vote of confidence and support for the state public health units.
They are doing the strongest possible work. But we're all always looking to expand what we're doing through increased testing and increased tracing.
Now I might ask Claire
Yeah. Thanks, Minister. To the Strathfield Council in Sydney (inaudible) that council told all the council staff they must install the COVIDSafe app on their Bluetooth device, they have no choice in the matter. It was checked, individual phones were checked.
What is the Government doing in relation to this in terms of if it’s a breach Biosecurity Act determination that you signed?
So at a general level it is not allowed and it is illegal to coerce anybody to download the app.
In this specific case I've seen the reports, the Department of Health is investigating and I've had this confirmed to me by the Secretary of the Department today - the case that's been raised with regards to Strathfield Council.
So they will be investigating and they will make it absolutely clear that this, if it is accurate, is unacceptable and further steps would be taken if it were not rectified immediately.
So we saw those reports, we weren't aware of them previously, we've acted immediately and they will be expected to respond immediately.
Yeah. Thank you, Minister. I’m just wondering if with this new plasma treatment, would you like to see it rolled out to health care workers as a matter of priority who may have been exposed to COVID-19 to protect them?
So as I understand it, and I might ask Charmaine to make some comments, it's primarily for those people who are most sick who are particularly ill and therefore at risk of either progressing into ICU or from ICU to ventilation.
That it’s about working with the immune system to provide that response.
Charmaine could you indicate whether or not it might potentially have a preventive treatment as well. So I’ll just invite Charmaine to the microphone
Thanks, Natasha, that's a great question. And we do know that hyperimmune products can be used as a preventive measure if somebody is exposed to an infection.
And this is likened to somebody who steps on a rusty nail and is worried about tetanus and they have not been vaccinated, you could use a hyperimmune to try and prevent the body from- the infection from taking hold.
And so we are interested in having a look at whether this would be very valuable for post-exposure prophylaxis for healthcare workers who are inadvertently exposed and who are being exposed on a constant basis, and so therefore to a high viral exposure.
But the first thing that we, we must do is look at those patients who are ill, as the Minister says, and where the greatest benefit can be gained, and where there really is nothing else for those people. So the clinical trials will commence in those patient populations in hospital.
And it may be that at a later stage, we would then look further to how it how effective it is in post-exposure prophylaxis.
Great. And just to add to that answer, the- there is the possibility then that it’s not just patients who are most currently at risk but it could have a preventive role.
And so I’d love to see this rolled out to health workers if the science says that it’s safe and potentially effective on a voluntary basis.
And there are the clinical trials being led by the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, work coming out of Western Australia to protect our health workers.
And I think it is worth reminding everyone, our health workers put themselves on the line and they are the real heroes in Australia’s response to coronavirus.
And to our nurses and our doctors, our allied health workers, our aged care workers, I just want to say thank you. And that brings me to Max.
Experts in New Zealand have suggested that our coronavirus reporting isn’t up to scratch because we’re failing to see details of how many of patients where investigations have been exhausted and the source of the infection remains unknown.
Why isn’t Australia wide reporting of that (inaudible) as they are in New Zealand that you can get a reporting back alongside those raw figures?
Look, I would- I hadn’t heard those comments before.
The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine assessed 83 countries.
They described our testing reporting as the most accurate in the world and so I’m not sure of the particular source there but it’s out of step with the general international assessment of Australia’s position and that’s a widely referenced publication from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
In terms of- in terms of our cases, we talk repeatedly about those that are under investigation versus those that have been cleared.
Just to confirm the case numbers which are provided every day - 6856 cases, 5964 recovered, very, very sadly, 97 lives lost.
In terms of the other questions you’ve asked, the breakup of those, 4315 locally acquired- overseas acquired, 1782 locally acquired who had contact with a confirmed case, 576 locally acquired with a contact not identified - I think that’s the figure you were referring to - 109 locally acquired, contact not identified but case had interstate travel, and 74 under investigation.
So I believe they’re the figures you’re after and we’re always happy to provide them.
At the end of today I want to say that, you know, we’re making progress.
We have seen in the case of the Victorian meatworks, an example of exactly the type of outbreak that we’ve talked about.
Victorian authorities, as have New South Wales and Tasmanian authorities, in relation to recent outbreaks have responded very rapidly and these are unprecedented times and conditions but we owe a duty of thanks to our public health officials; we owe a duty of thanks to our healthcare workers.
And today’s the day to say that you’re saving lives and protecting lives but this newest research offers more hope for Australia to continue to be at the global forefront of saving lives and protecting lives.
Thank you for your patience.