Now, I've got an interview coming up with one of the busiest men in the country, the Health Minister, Greg Hunt, but beforehand, I wanted to give you an update on an issue you might not have heard about.
Cystic fibrosis is a cruel, inherited disorder that can greatly diminish, as you know, not only the sufferer’s quality of life, but their life expectancy.
But happily, there's a new treatment now being used around the world called Trikafta.
Trikafta is a prescription medicine used for the treatment of cystic fibrosis, or CF, in patients aged six years and older.
Now this drug has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, and it's being subsidised by more than two dozen governments around the world, including the US, the UK, and France.
It's made life a lot easier for cystic fibrosis patients, and it's likely to greatly extend their lives too. The only catch is that it's very expensive; as much as a couple of $100,000 for an annual course. But we're talking about only 2,000 or so people who would need this treatment in Australia.
Now, although the drug is approved as safe in Australia, it's yet to win approval for funding under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
So, I asked the Health Minister, Greg Hunt, when that might happen.
So Trikafta is a new triple therapy. It's a breakthrough treatment, and it builds on what we've done with Orkambi and other critical medicines for cystic fibrosis.
We're at the situation now where we are ready to go.
We're simply awaiting the company accepting the recommendations of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee, and the Government is in a position to list it immediately as soon as the company accepts those recommendations.
They’re the guidelines, and by definition, the company has to accept them. But we have, and I think that's great news and we're encouraging Vertex to do that.
Each time, when the PBAC makes its recommendations, this is the process we go through. But we've accepted; now we’re simply awaiting the manufacturer.
And for people with cystic fibrosis, new treatment, new hope, and I think incredibly important.
There is greater hope with this. So just to cut through that process, is it something that you think you might be able to approve before you finish up as Health Minister by May?
I absolutely hope so.
I've spoken with the company in advance of this on the condition that if it were approved by the PBAC, we would approve it and we're in that position now where we've accepted the expert medical panel's recommendations and we just need the company to accept it.
And so, we're working every day to encourage them to make sure that it is available. So, they literally have to say, yep, we agree, we sign on the dotted line, and then we're away.
Well, that’s good news. Let's hope it can be sorted out within months effectively, is what we're saying there, which should be great news for thousands of families around the country.
Let's get on to the pandemic, and I'm keen to get your view now on vaccine mandates because it's starting to get to a situation now where we've really got to confront this as a country because, especially with Omicron, all the medical research from around the world – trials in Israel, the US, the UK – show us that the vaccinated and the unvaccinated pick up the disease and transmit it in relatively the same way.
In other words, there's no reason to think the unvaccinated are a bigger danger to others than the vaccinated. They’re, of course, a danger to themselves.
Do you think, then, that this just strengthens the case for those state-based vaccine mandates around the country, for police officers, for teachers and the like; it's time to get rid of them?
Well, we haven't changed our position.
We've had a very consistent position throughout. Our position has been that we have supported vaccination mandates in aged care for aged care workers because they're with a vulnerable group.
That helped us achieve over 99 per cent of double vaccination amongst aged care workers. And so, it's virtually impossible to have a higher rate than that.
And our position remains the same in terms of being what's called up to date is the definition which has been put out by the medical experts of a third dose, which is recommended, and that is the mandates which we have been supporting are those in relation to aged care.
Other than that, it's a matter for the states and territories.
Sure. But this is the trouble. So much of pandemic management, so much of the overregulation and the rules is put in by the states, and obviously it's up to the Federal Government to try and push them in the right direction.
We've got so much science now, so many scientists speaking up about the fact that a lot of rules are too restrictive, that they're counterproductive, and certainly that there's no need for vaccine mandates.
What more can you do to push the states to pull back on their restrictions?
Well, the first thing is, my focus is to have as many people as possible have their booster. The booster is a very important protection.
So, I respectfully want to make this point, a very important protection against transmission, serious illness, ventilation, and the loss of life.
Incredibly important. We passed 10 million boosters today, and we’ve been one of the first countries in the world to put in place a whole of nation booster program.
So, the first message is please come out and be boosted. Join the more than 58 per cent of eligible people who’ve had your booster.
The second is that we have supported mandates in the case of aged care, the others are a matter for the states and territories. I will let them make their case. But those are the positions that we’ve taken.
We recognise that vaccination in Australia is highly, highly, highly recommended, but our position has been voluntary, other than in those circumstances, the rest is for those states who have differing rules to set out their reasoning.
But little wonder we’re seeing demonstrations like we saw on the weekend because we’ve got more than 94 per cent double vaccination as you say, nearly 60 per cent of those with their triple jab, receiving a booster shot, yet still people around the country are having their workplaces limited.
Some of them can’t work if they’re not vaccinated. We’ve got restrictions when it comes to mask wearing, to QR codes, schooling is sometimes disrupted. I mean, surely, we’re at the position in this country – perhaps better place than many countries around the world who are already pulling back and getting rid of all restrictions in some European nations?
Well, we are vastly better placed than the vast majority of people around the world precisely because of those high vaccination rates.
Over 94 per cent now, as of today, double dosed, 95.9 per cent have had at least one vaccination.
Novavax starts today which will provide an option for those who either haven’t been able to or haven’t felt comfortable in seeking a vaccination with the mRNA or viral vector vaccines, the protein vaccine.
And so, what we have been doing is as a Commonwealth, having very limited restrictions in place. Yes, we are responsible under the Biosecurity Act for the double vaccination requirement for entry into Australia and for those leaving Australia.
But those other mandates are matters for the states and we have been very clear about that the whole way through.
I want to get you to expand a little bit on the mortality data.
Now, it's always a difficult area because, of course, we mourn the passing of any individual and the passing of anyone, no matter their age or how sick they are, is sad.
But you put on the record a couple of weeks ago some important data. Of course, most of the deaths have been occurring in aged care facilities, and you pointed out that 60 per cent of those who had died were actually in palliative care.
I mean, this is important context, especially when there are elements around trying to create fear and anxiety in the population about healthy young adults and even about children.
I mean, the people who are dying from this disease in this country, sad as it is, are almost overwhelmingly very aged and suffering from significant co-morbidities.
Look, sadly, that is the case that we have people who are vastly older, it can affect and lead to loss of life in any age group. That's been the global experience.
But Omicron itself is a vastly milder disease. It has a death rate in Australia, sadly, of about 0.1 per cent, but it is highly transmissible.
In terms of those that have passed in aged care, it's 58 per cent is the absolute latest data because the Department of Health is doing constant work and revision of those that have passed in aged care recently, for which there's data available, are in the palliative stage.
Then there's 27 per cent – and there's some overlap here – are either unvaccinated or partially vaccinated. And so, what we see is that amongst those that are fully vaccinated, there is a very low loss of life unless they are palliative.
And Professor Brendan Murphy did make the point to the Senate that sadly, of course, we lose 1000 lives a week through the journey that people are on in aged care, 50,000 people a year pass through the later stages of their lives and die.
But of those, what we know is that it has been about 60 per cent, 58 per cent is the absolute latest granular data of the palliative rate amongst those that have been diagnosed with COVID who pass.
Minister, thanks so much for sharing all that information with us. I appreciate it.
Thanks, Chris, and take care, everybody.