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Interview with Chris Kenny on Sky News about coronavirus (COVID-19)

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's interview with Chris Kenny on Sky News about coronavirus (COVID-19).

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

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Now, with all the news today on the pandemic and the vaccine, I caught up just a few minutes ago with the Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.

Minister, thanks for joining us again. I spoke to you on Monday and I must admit I was surprised at how bullish, how optimistic you were about the AstraZeneca Oxford University vaccine.

Now these are notoriously difficult things to design and produce, and already it's hit a hiccup.


Well what we've seen I think is the path and process of vaccine development that all vaccines will face. I've spoken with the Australian head of AstraZeneca, they regard this as a normal, important part of the process.

They have an independent medical expert panel that reviews all cases. So as they have details, they’ll provide them with Australia. At this stage, they're not expecting that it will change the outcome.

It doesn't change the efficacy. But they are focused above all else, all else, on safety. And I think that knowing that we have one of the strongest universities in the world, one of the strongest medicines companies in the world and one of the strongest regulatory regimes overseeing it in the UK, even before we get to the Australian TGA, gives us the confidence that anything we do will be safe and we won't do it unless it is safe.


So this trial is now put on hold because somebody who's getting the vaccine or involved in the trial has become ill. You've got to be on the lookout for side effects. There's testing. You wait. That's why vaccine developments normally take a long while.

There's been a lot of bullish predictions about how quickly this vaccine can be produced and pressed into service. Just how much time, how much of a delay do you think this first setback will create?


So AstraZeneca said that they didn't expect that there would be a significant delay. They haven't changed the timeframes for any of their deliveries for Australia.

First quarter of next year remains the target and the expected and contracted date. It could be as early as January and February for the first vaccines. And so, those are unchanged, but most importantly, it's about safety.

The advice that I have is that they’ll now be reviewing whether or not the vaccine was the cause of an unknown and unexpected event.

And then secondly, they'll be reviewing whether or not it was the vaccine or the placebo. And so, what they're using now is a particular type of clinical trial, where it's a blind randomised control, which means some people get the vaccine; some people will have a placebo.

And importantly, they have an independent medical expert panel that reviews that for safety as well as looking at the effectiveness, but in this case, they’re looking at the safety.

And I think having that strong process, Oxford, the United Kingdom, AstraZeneca all brought together, gives us that protection in the same way that in Australia, the University of Queensland, CSL and the Therapeutic Goods Administration is also some of the strongest protection in the world.


Well you must be worried about that of course, the rush, if you try and hurry, something that’s- safety could be compromised.

The appropriate checks and balances of a prospective vaccine are not carried out, but you're obviously satisfied there’s enough pressure, there's enough independent analysis and accountability here?


Well many people have criticised the TGA in Australia in the past for being too cautious, too conservative. I don't agree. I think the fact that they are one of the world's most rigorous regulators with the strictest standards, I think, has kept Australians safe and will continue to keep Australians safe.

Equally, in the UK, they have a comparable process, one of the absolute best in the world. And when you bring together Oxford, AstraZeneca and the UK regulatory process, back it up with the Australian regulatory process, you can see the safeguards we’ve placed and we have carefully and cautiously made our choices on the basis of medical expert advice and off the back of the data that's been produced.

And that is some of the strongest data in the world, some of the most prospective outcomes in the initial stages of the development, some of the highest safety safeguards. And so, they’re all in place.

Now we see those safeguards coming into being and I think that that's a really important thing to understand that if you didn't have those safeguards, that's when you would be worried.

Either it will be an issue or it will be resolved, either way you've got the best people in the world under the most rigorous conditions looking at it.


Nonetheless, this underpins the speculative nature, the risky business of trying to- the very uncertain business of trying to develop vaccines. Does it underscore the need for us as a nation to plan to live with the virus rather than pin our hopes on having an effective vaccine available by the first half of next year?


I don't think it changes the fundamental equation, but always, in any event, we have to be prepared for the current circumstances.

The fundamental things that have protected the health of Australians is the containment strategy of borders, testing, tracing and distancing. All four have to be in place and all four have overwhelmingly worked.

And we know we've had some challenges but we are seeing some real progress in Victoria. Even in the last 24 hours, I welcome those changes on contact tracing.

And we’ve put in place the capacity to manage the virus – the primary care, the additional support for aged care – and then building our hospital capacity, 7500 ventilators.

So, all of these things have been done to protect the health of Australians and that's why we've had some of the absolutely best health outcomes in the world, and we'll continue to do that, at the same time working towards the vaccine. We didn't just put all our eggs in one basket. We still believe that this is a highly prospective vaccine.

And equally, we have the University of Queensland, CSL vaccine, and there are other vaccines which we’re currently considering, and when we're satisfied that they're safe and effective, then we'll be in a position to say more on them, but we’ve picked two of the world's leading, if not the two leading candidates.


Now you mentioned the situation in Victoria, your home state. The most draconian measure that Premier Daniel Andrews has put in place to try and contain the virus in Victoria is the curfew in Melbourne. People locked in their homes effectively from 8:00 o'clock at night to 5:00 o'clock in the morning.

Are you surprised by the revelations yesterday that the Chief Medical Officer in Victoria did not recommend this? This was not a health recommendation; that the curfew is something that Daniel Andrews just decided to put in place for law and order reasons.


Look, I was somewhat surprised because until now, we’d understood that all of the actions taken had been taken on medical advice. I will respectfully leave that to the Victorians.

Most significantly though, the importance of having- whether it's the vaccine or the contact tracing, is they are health protections. Strengthening contact tracing protects Victorians and protects the health of Australians, and in seven out of eight states and territories, that's been incredibly strong and then.


But Minister- but Minister, in the state of Victoria now, people are living under this curfew. By the time it's lifted on current projections, that curfew will have been in place for three months. There was no medical advice that advised the curfew.

Shouldn't Daniel Andrews lift it now for the social sake, for the mental health benefits of Victorians because it's just not a medical initiative?


Well, as you know, in the recent days, the Prime Minister, myself, the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg have been very, very clear that we want to see the health safeguards put in place so as these restrictions, all of the different restrictions can be lifted as quickly as possible, and there has to be a medical basis for any restriction because our normal state of being.


Well exactly. There's no medical basis for the curfew. Should the curfew go now?


Pardon, Chris. I apologise.


I'm just saying there is no medical basis for the curfew. Daniel Andrews has admitted that. The Chief Medical Officer has confirmed that. Should the curfew go now because it's a draconian restriction and there is no medical basis for it?


So we would like to see all and as many of the restrictions lifted as soon as the medical conditions allow, and if there's no medical basis for something, then obviously, that's then something entirely within the remit of the Victorian Government to address and we'd encourage them to consider that in the coming days.


Minister, thanks for joining us.


Thanks Chris.

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