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Interview on Sky News about coronavirus (COVID-19)

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt on Sky News talking about coronavirus (COVID-19).

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

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So much fear about a virus that has so far called fewer than 3000 people which, yes, is very serious, but then every year related flu viruses kill up 650,000 around the world without causing a bit of panic.  
And speaking of panic, Australia’s share market today dropped for the third straight day. That’s $130 billion of value gone in just three days. 
Joining me to sort out the facts from the scare is Health Minister Greg Hunt. Greg Hunt, thank you so much for giving us your time. Why is this coronavirus more frightening than the flu? 

So look, that’s a very important question, and there are really two elements.  
One is the rate of contagion, and then secondly the rate of lives lost.  
We know that around the world at the moment, it’s estimated that about 3 per cent of those who contract the virus lose their lives.  
That’s overwhelmingly been driven by the city of Wuhan and the province of Hubei. 
Outside of Hubei province in China, it’s a lower figure of about 0.7 per cent, and then internationally about 1.5. It’s averaged at about 3 per cent.  
So it’s much higher- up to 10 times higher mortality rate than the flu, and if it were to spread globally, we’d have a very large number of people infected because it’s more contagious than the flu, but it’s far more deadly by a factor of 10 than the flu, then that’s why it would have such a profound effect.

Yeah, it’s interesting that difference in death rates. And you just wonder whether China’s been- the rate in China’s so high because, maybe, I don’t know, their medical system isn’t as great as in the west. 
Now, is the world getting on top of this, Greg Hunt? Or is it getting away from us? It’s hard to tell. 

So what we’ve seen is, in China, a slowing of- a significant slowing of new cases outside of Hubei. So, outside of the epicentre of it.  
And that in a way has been backed up by the fact that we’ve had over 30,000 people come to Australia, returning Australians from China, and no cases have come with that.  
They’ve all gone into- they’ve been tested and screened as they come through the airport.  
They’ve been- they’ve all gone into self-isolation, and the program is actually working very well. 
That’s not to say we’re immune. And I’ve said that, the Prime Minister’s said that, the Chief Medical Officer’s said that.  
But what that shows is that in our genuine belief- improving containment in China.  
Internationally, however, exactly as you were saying.  
We’ve seen in Italy, in Iran, in South Korea and Japan, breakouts.  
And so they are all moving to contain those areas.  
We’ve been able- so far, and I say so far, to successfully contain in Australia there were 15 initial cases.  
It’s remained as 15 in the general population with eight coming out of the Diamond Princess passengers that have been in isolation in quarantine in Howard Springs. 

Now, which of these countries that we’re talking about- you know, outside China, is worrying you the most?  
I mean, you’ve got Iran – a death toll now that’s gone up to 15, at least, although there are obviously lots of rumours about many more – and it seems so slack that even its deputy health minister gets sick in front of the cameras. 
I mean, it’s incredible. Or is it Italy, perhaps. Which one is worrying you? 

The situation in Iran is such – and the Chief Medical Officer has commented on this – that with a death rate of that level, it is likely that there’s a very large number of unreported or unrecorded cases, and so that’s significant.  
And in South Korea, the numbers have grown very significantly, although they have taken quite profound containment activities.  
And so all of these cases are concerning, that’s why what we’ve done in Australia is to put in place very, very strong containment measures.  
We were one of the earliest countries in the world to declare this on 21 January a disease of pandemic potential, and we were criticised by some for that.  
We were criticised by some for the very early, very strong actions on 1 February with regards to closing the borders to non-Australians who have been in mainland China.  
But those things have made a significant difference.  
So we’re not immune, but we are incredibly well-prepared.  
And previously unrecognised, but now bringing into action all of those things in the plan; the National Incident Centre, the National Trauma Centre, the daily meetings of the Commonwealth and state chief health officers, the pandemic plan which has been put into action.  
All of these things have been prepared, and now been implemented. 

No it seems to have gone quite well so far. 
But talking about countries that worry you, I’m particularly worried – tell me whether I’m jumping at shadows here – Indonesia, I don’t think it’s credible at all that it has not reported a single case when it’s got a large Chinese diaspora, so you imagine there’s been some contact between China and Indonesia. Not one case? 

So we can only go off the figures.  
We have been focused very, very closely on Indonesia.  
We’ve been reviewing the statistics, we’ve been reviewing the testing regimes, and the testing regimes are not as extensive as Australia.  
Over 3000 tests in Australia so far, and that figure is likely to be updated very shortly.  
But what we see in Indonesia is, at this point, no recorded cases.  
However, we are simply working with the Indonesian authorities, I know the Americans are working with the Indonesian authorities to help them with their testing, to help them with their screening, to help them make sure that they are doing everything they can to identify any possible cases.  

Yeah, well, I don’t quite trust them either. Now Japan, is it fair to say, as I have, that it’s bungled the Diamond Princess- that whole quarantine process. 700 people on board get the virus, eight Japanese officials are meant to help maintain the quarantine, they’re now sick as well.  

Well, it’s absolutely clear that the quarantine was not successful.  
And so much so that we made the very difficult decision, which again upset some people, but I think was absolutely the right decision to say, nobody comes back to Australia from the Diamond Princess unless they go into a supervised quarantine which is at Howard Springs, at the temporary quarantine facility near Darwin.  
As a result of that, eight people who might otherwise have gone into the community in Australia, have developed the infection.  
The community has been protected, they’ve been identified early through the daily screening processes.  
They’ve got the best medical protection.  
So what we’ve done is with a very clear plan, managed to protect the general community but also protect the individuals.  
So we have taken a different approach, I accept and acknowledge that. We’ve taken a very tough approach, but that was the right thing to do. 

Well the Japanese- of course, I mean, look how the Japanese weren’t handling that. Is there any risk in your mind of the Olympics being cancelled? 

Look, at this point it is way too early to say.  
This is really about the global condition of whether or not the virus begins to evolve into the pandemic.  
Some are predicting that; some are predicting a more benign outcome.  
What that really means is, is there sustained human-to-human transition in a number of countries. 
But our test is very simple; what is the risk to our athletes? And if there is a material risk, then we won’t hesitate to protect them. That’s our test.  
This decision I think is some months away and so I gave the advice today that at this point, our travel advisory is Level Two, take precautions and be very alert but keep training, you know, keep training. That’s what we’re going for. 

Obviously, yes, yes. And lastly, there’s now a frantic search to develop a vaccine. We’re involved, Australia’s got scientists working on this. Have you got any progress to report? 

Well, it was the Doherty Institute in Melbourne, based out of Melbourne University, which was the first institution to grow and share globally the coronavirus.  
So that gives us a huge head start.  
The University of Queensland is doing extraordinary work in conjunction with the CSIRO.  
So we will get there, I believe, on a vaccine.  
It’s a question of time and the estimates are between six and 18 months with probably an emphasis on the latter half rather than the earlier.  
I think it’s very important for me to be completely upfront and honest about this.  
So we would rather give an honest timeframe and then try to beat that target, but Australia along with countries right around the world, but especially some in Europe and particularly the United States are- those are the three hubs for driving forward the vaccine work. 

Greg Hunt, I just thought of something. Later on this show we’re going to be talking about the three baboons that escaped in Sydney.  
That’s now led to a protest about animal experimentations, because that’s what they were part of a colony of, for medical experiments to make humans get better treatment.  
Do you have any concerns with the animal experimentation programs you fund? 

Well I’d have to get information on this from what’s called the NHMRC, but my understanding is the New South Wales authorities have been leading this.  
I’ll be writing to the New South Wales Health Minister to understand what they were doing, what happened in this case.  
But I did say earlier today that my heart was with the baboons. 

Now, that’s a phrase I didn’t think you’d expect to be saying in politics. But yes, thank you so much indeed for your time, Greg Hunt. 

It’s one I thought I’d never get to say. Thanks a lot. 

Good on you. 

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