Media event date: 
25 April 2021
Date published: 
26 April 2021
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

DR ROSS WALKER:

More than a billion coronavirus vaccinations have been jabbed into arms globally, but just under two million of those jabs have been into the arms of Australians.

The slow and interrupted vaccine roll out in Australia is causing frustration amongst many, but especially as the State Premiers are prone to snap lock downs when a single case emerges. And that’s just shows what’s at stake at the moment, why it’s essential to inoculate the nation as quickly as possible.

Now, I’ve got to say, I’ve been practicing medicine for over 40 years, and it’s my opinion that our next guest is the best Health Minister this country has ever seen, but what an extraordinary time to have to navigate Australia through this health crisis.

So tonight, an update on Australia's vaccine rollout and I'm delighted to welcome the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, to Healthy Living. Good evening, Greg,

GREG HUNT:

And good evening. Ross, it's a, it's a pleasure to be with you.

DR ROSS WALKER:

It's great to have you on, my friend. Now, an 80 year-old Victorian man developed blood clots after receiving his first dose of the AstraZeneca jab, and he's the first person, tragically, over the age of 50 where these blood clots have been possibly linked to the vaccine, according to the TGA.

This week, it was confirmed that those over 50 will only be offered the AstraZeneca vaccine, and I've got to say, I'm getting phone calls and emails all the time from concerned people over the age of 50 about having the AstraZeneca vaccine. So what's the situation at the moment?

GREG HUNT:

Look, the first thing, of course, is that what we've seen in Australia was over 1.1 million AstraZeneca vaccinations. There has been one mild case in the leg of somebody who was over 80. My advice is the person is clinically well and in, in a strong situation.

So around the world, of course, AstraZeneca has been one of the principal vaccines. In the UK, over 20 million people have been vaccinated; in Australia more than 1.1 million; and, that it's the vaccine that I took along with Julia Gillard and Professor Brendan Murphy. And this is all about keeping Australians safe.

We have a pandemic which is now seeing a rolling average of over 800,000 cases a day, the highest level during the course of the pandemic. So Australia's an island sanctuary, but outside our borders it's still a very, very dangerous place and we have to have as many people vaccinated as early as possible. But it's important to follow the medical advice, and that's exactly what we're doing.

DR ROSS WALKER:

Well, firstly, I mean, I’ve been, as I said, I’ve been practising medicine for a long time, and an 80 year-old getting a clot is not unusual. How can the TGA be sure that there's a link between that and the vaccine anyhow?

GREG HUNT:

So they have what's called the vaccine safety investigation group. So they go through a series of tests in this particular case, they look for our low platelets, they look for a particular type of thrombosis, it’s called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia. I realised yours is the medical program.

DR ROSS WALKER:

Yeah. That’s fine.

GREG HUNT:

So I don’t feel too bad in talking about that. But basically there are some tests and signatures which are consistent with this.

Now, one of the things is that Australia is probably onto this much earlier in its vaccination program, and we're very aware and hyper sensitised. So we have a highly strong investigative group they, they are identifying everything. And importantly, even the mildest of cases are being identified.

Now, that may mean that their health is a very, very strong situation and with the over 80’s with near to a million, sorry over 50’s, we've seen one mild case. And ultimately, though, this vaccination program is about protecting the country against incursion.

We know the cases are there outside, and we know that the threat is always there. So it's just part of the journey as a nation that we’re on and it's incredible that we're in a position with over 1.9 million vaccinations to be able to vaccinate the nation.

DR ROSS WALKER:

And the point I'd like to make, it's a mild case in one person. And we do know that if we do get a second wave during, during winter, which is where it tends to rear its ugly head a bit more, except for, of course, maybe in India we really need people vaccinated as soon as possible.

And so I just don't want anyone listening over the age of 50 to say, oh no, this man’s had it so therefore, I'm not going to get the AstraZeneca vaccine.

GREG HUNT:

No, I think that's very important. And what we've done right throughout, and even when it's, you know, deeply difficult or inconvenient, is follow that medical advice.

The closing of the borders with China, which was almost inconceivable at the time, given where we are in history, the economic cost, the diplomatic cost, all of those things, yet we made it on the basis of the medical advice.

And you know I was so deeply engaged in those discussions with the Prime Minister and Brendan Murphy, and yet we made that call. The same when, even though the University of Queensland vaccine looked very, very safe and very, very effective because it had the potential for a false positive HIV, we said we can't have that risk across the country confusing people.

And similarly here, the medical authorities strongly recommend this for people over 50, and they'd taken a precautionary stance for those under 50.

DR ROSS WALKER:

Yeah, I know. And I'll be having mine as soon as I can possibly organise it.

Now, just, just on that, you mentioned locking the borders down with China. What about what's happening in India at the moment and locking the borders down with India?

GREG HUNT:

Well, of course, what we have is a closed border around the world. We have to bring people through the hotel quarantine, and you know, we’ve brought half a million people home since May- March 13 last year.

That’s put us in this position where we have zero, one, zero, one, zero, zero, these sorts of numbers for cases. The rest of the world looks on and is just gobsmacked. You know, I have friends overseas, I talk with ministers overseas.

Now, in terms of India, we've all also reduced the number, even of Australians coming home and that's a very hard decision. We have to have this balance of safety, of keeping Australia safe, at the same time helping to bring Australians home. So we've made the very difficult decision to reduce those numbers.

But there is deep humanity, people coming home for births, or deaths, or weddings; coming home because it is their home; coming home for medicine or palliative care, or to see people who are passing away, these are, these are all fundamental to who we are.

So we have to strike that balance. And perhaps better than almost any other country in the world. When you see these, you know, the situation of over 67 days with zero cases this year, in a world with well over half a million per day for the year, and over 800,000 per day for the last week, I think we've got a good balance.

DR ROSS WALKER:

No, I totally agree. But we've seen, however, in the last couple of days, Perth and the Peel area going into lockdown and staying into lockdown until Tuesday over two cases, and where the source is known. And now we've got Premier Mark McGowan saying that we should be having these quarantine hubs. Is the Federal Government considering opening remote quarantine hubs?

GREG HUNT:

Well, the challenge with a remote hub, of course, is the hospitals, from the health care. Why did the states volunteer and put their hands up; and indeed insist on doing this initially? Because it was deemed to be the safest to have people near hospitals, not to have staff travelling, and not to have patients who were being flown around the country once they were COVID positive.

And we're already seeing that, why is there concern with, with numbers? Why did we reduce? To make sure that the load on the hospitals and the load on the quarantine system was as low as was reasonable, given the task to, to bring home people in terms of our deep human responsibility.

Now, the Darwin hub at the Howard Springs, that's actually near the airport in Darwin, it’s just over 20 minutes. I've been there twice, I know it well, it's part of Darwin, but sometimes presented as if it's remote. It's not linked to the extraordinary AUSMAT system, the Darwin Hospital system.

And so we're always looking at what we can do. But what we've done, and Premier McGowan acknowledged this today, it’s actually brought home hundreds of thousands of Australians. Even with the best systems in the world, the hotel quarantine system is our first ring of containment.

But we have others, testing, and tracing, and ultimately, distancing. And we've seen in New South Wales where there was a major break out in Northern Beaches in December, the testing and tracing allowed them to bring it under control. Because we know how to do this, that's why we're in a position that virtually no other country is in.

DR ROSS WALKER:

Now, just on a different note to moving onto the mRNA vaccines. The Victorian Government said it’d throw at least $50 million towards building the mRNA production capacity in Melbourne. And clearly that's, that's great news. But how much money is the Federal Government prepared to inject into this?

GREG HUNT:

So we've done a 12 year-long term contract with CSL to manufacture vaccine in Australia, that a- it's public, it's a billion-dollar contract. And one of the two technologies which they're considering is mRNA, so we would strongly encourage them to do that.

They will be building a new vaccine manufacturing plant in Australia. So we've already gone down that path. They're determining the optimal. And a year ago, they were looking at what's called cell-based vaccine manufacturing, moving from egg based.

Now, because of the speed with which mRNA has advanced, there’d never been an mRNA vaccine a year ago, now they're considering this and they're publicly discussing it, obviously discussing it with us. So we're very open to that development.

And we're in talks with other companies, but they haven't made any public declarations to the stock market. So we're talking widely. We've already invested in a 12-year contract. And that's we're, we're in a strong position. We welcome anything that the states do to assist that programme.

DR ROSS WALKER:

Lots of people have asked us why we didn't strike a deal with Moderna as well as Pfizer, who obviously are making the other mRNA vaccine. Is the Government negotiating with Moderna as well? And is a deal possible there? Or is it just purely with Pfizer?

GREG HUNT:

So, if there’s medical advice and the medical advice, of course, has to deal with safety, efficacy, but the timeliness of supply, does it actually give us a time advantage? And if something comes very late and it's not in advance of what we already have, knowing we already have 170 million vaccines for a population of 25 million, then the medical advice has been that it doesn't actually add.

But we're open to dealing with anybody that the vaccines task force, led by Professor Murphy, recommends. And we followed all of their advice.

And at the moment we have 40 million Pfizer; we have 53.8 million AstraZeneca; we have 51 with Novavax; and, 25 million vaccines from what's called the COVAX facility, which is an international facility which allows access to multiple different types of vaccines. And so, we have a huge supply.

Right now there's a mixture of Pfizer for the under 50s, and AstraZeneca for the over. Later on in the year there's a very large increase in the supply of Pfizer, and that is enough for every Australian that will be seeking it if they are not taking the vaccine now, although for the over 50s, we encourage them to follow the medical advice to be vaccinated as soon as possible.

DR ROSS WALKER:

Greg, can I say, firstly, congratulations to you and your medical team for what you've done in the management of COVID. And I know there's been a few hiccups with the vaccine, but obviously the roll out's going to occur.

But also it's, in many ways, overshadowed the extraordinary achievements with all of the other things, you know, other aspects of medicine you've done. Some of the great drugs you've been able to get on through the PBS for people who otherwise has to pay so much money and couldn't afford it.

So really, I'm in awe of you as our Health Minister, and I hope you stay in the position for many years to come.

GREG HUNT:

That’s very generous, but the real people that deserve thanks, our frontline medical and health and quarantine workers. In addition to that, we have the, the incredible work of the Australian people.

I was reflecting on some of the Anzac Day ceremonies this morning, the journey that a year ago we were at our front gates, or our doors, or our balconies. This year we were able to have ANZAC ceremonies, we were able to have people at the football.

And very significantly, the world looks at that and says, gee, we really wish we’re in the same position as Australia, and see Australians that have done that. And so we’ve learned a lot about ourselves as a country, we’ve learned a lot of good things. And always challenges, but when you look at countries we know and love and see the situation they’re in and then compare it with ours, I think the Australian people should be pretty proud of what they've done.

DR ROSS WALKER:

I think we are. And can I thank you so much for all of your time? And we'd love to have you on again to talk about some other matters other than, hopefully, other than coronavirus,

GREG HUNT:

That’s alright. I'd love to. Where it’s medicines or mental health, medical research, all of these things, any time.

DR ROSS WALKER:

That’s the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt.

Ministers: