Media event date: 
9 September 2020
Date published: 
10 September 2020
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Greg Hunt is the Federal Health Minister and he joins us on the line. Good afternoon.

GREG HUNT:

Good afternoon, Raf.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

The pause in one of the big vaccine trials, is that going to slow down its potential success, do you think?

GREG HUNT:

The best advice I have – and I've spoken with the Australian head of AstraZeneca today – is that they don't believe that's likely.

The way it works is when you have a major clinical trial like this is there’s an independent medical expert panel. They review any adverse events amongst- that are significant amongst their trial participants.

It's not known at this stage whether it's related to the vaccine, and it's not known whether at this stage the recipient had either the actual vaccine or what's known as a placebo.

So, we've asked if we could have that information as a matter of priority, but that's now going to be determined by an independent medical expert panel. But they set them up- so as they have these multi-person trials.

This will ultimately grow to be a 50,000-person trial and have safety as the number one item. And as soon as that information is known, we'll have it and we'll share it with Australia.

But the expectation is that this is part of the normal process of a vaccine trial. And importantly, because you've got Oxford, AstraZeneca and the UK, you've got three of the strongest institutions and regulatory bodies in the world.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

If the vaccine works, how do you work out who gets it first?

GREG HUNT:

So we've got vaccine supplies for all Australians. There's a medical expert panel in Australia with our vaccine leaders that will help determine that.

But it's not going to be a surprise to anybody that our frail elderly and our health workers are overwhelmingly expected to be the first to have the opportunity to be vaccinated.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

And after them, is it people with comorbidities, because I think something like 40 per cent of the population have a comorbidity. Are they next after those- after that group?

GREG HUNT:

So here I won't speculate beyond what the medical expert panel is considering. They'll come up with that advice.

But certainly, the sort of preliminary view was that the first and most likely group would be the frail elderly and health workers. But they'll provide that advice and we'll follow it.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I am going to ask you to speculate a bit on the delivery of the vaccine.

GREG HUNT:

Sure, of course.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Only because in America the President is strongly suggesting there will be a vaccine before the end of October. And one of his top doctors, Dr Fauci, says that is very unlikely. Do you think a vaccine is possible in the beginning of November?

GREG HUNT:

Look, I'll tell you our advice on what we're expecting for Australia, and we've been very cautious and very conservative that vaccines will be overwhelmingly likely to be available in Australia in the first half of this year 2021.

In particular the advice we have is that will probably include the first quarter, with the first vaccines being potentially in January and February. But we've been very cautious all along.

We haven't moved into this space until we felt there was strong data about safety and effectiveness, and that's the timing that is within our contractual arrangements and that's the cautious conservative timing that we're providing as advice.

And then it would be rolled out over the coming months through the course of the first half of 2021 and through into the third quarter of 2021.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I will get to your text after we've heard from the Health Minister. It’s 0437-774-774.

Greg Hunt, there's been a lot said about contact tracing, so I want to try and ask a specific question if I can.

GREG HUNT:

Sure. Yep.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

What is it that you think New South Wales is doing right now that is not being done in Victoria?

GREG HUNT:

So they've had three elements. Firstly, they've been automated, and very effective in that processing with their contact tracing and therefore with times.

What does contact tracing mean? It means that if there's somebody who's been next to, or in contact with a person who's been diagnosed with COVID, they can be quarantined quickly to protect them and to protect the health of everybody else.

Secondly, they've had a localised model where they've had public health units that are related and linked to the local community. And then thirdly, they've also had a very strong public health response in terms of the ability to actually isolate and home quarantine people.

Now all of those have now been strengthened in Victoria. I unqualifiedly welcome the announcements of the last 24 hours from Victoria, and I know that Dr Nick Coatsworth, our Deputy Chief Medical Officer has also done that.

Victoria is sending a team along with the Chief Scientist to New South Wales. These are all really good things.

So we're just working constructively to help them. Contact tracing, along with testing, borders and distancing, they’re the things that save lives. And the stronger that we have all four of those elements, the better the health outcomes for Victorians and Australians.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Because I just want to try and narrow something down, because both you and the Prime Minister suggested on Monday that Victoria could open up more quickly if its contact tracing worked better.

And I asked the Chief Health Officer here, Brett Sutton, whether or not that was the case? Whether or not it's true that Victoria's ability to open up was being held back by its contact tracing?

[Excerpt]

BRETT SUTTON:

No. Convenient misinterpretation. We are doing contact tracing at a level akin to a New South Wales, Queensland, and most places in the world right now.

[End of excerpt]

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

So Greg Hunt, he says it's a convenient misinterpretation. Is he right?

GREG HUNT:

Look, you have epidemiologists, some world leading epidemiologists such as Professor Jodie McVernon from the Doherty Institute, Professor Collignon from the ANU.

You have Professor Marylouise McLaws or Professor Catherine Bennett from Deakin University, who is the lead epidemiologist there. They all take a respectfully different view. They have looked.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

That’s about the modelling, that's not about whether or not the contact tracing is linked to the speed of the opening up.

GREG HUNT:

Well, this is about the ability of Victoria- in particular, you'll find that a number of them have referred to contact tracing, specifically what we see is the commentary from Peter Collignon, who has talked very much about Victoria's contact tracing and comparing it with New South Wales. None of this is intended as a criticism. It says if we have strong contact tracing that.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Sorry, can I interrupt Minister?

GREG HUNT:

Allows us to isolate and to protect people, and in turn that allows us to respond to small numbers of cases really quickly. And therefore to give people the ability to go about their normal lives.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

I’m just trying to narrow it down if I can because- you won't know because you probably don’t get to watch press conferences. I've asked repeatedly at press conferences- you know, is there a metric we are not meeting that New South Wales is meeting?

And you heard there from Brett Sutton. He says we are doing contact tracing at a level equal to New South Wales and Queensland. Is he right or wrong?

GREG HUNT:

Well, that isn't the view of the epidemiology community. I ran through I think four of them.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

But they all disagree with each other. Is there a bit of- is there data somewhere that shows that Victoria’s not doing as well?

GREG HUNT:

What we have is the ADF when they arrived in Victoria, they recognised that difficult situation, no criticism. There were up to a thousand cases that had never been contact traced. They've helped provide that rigour.

It is improving in Victoria but the metric is very simple and that is every case, every day within 24 hours of notification of a positive to have that contact tracing interview, and then after that to make sure that we have within 48 hours everybody isolated that has been in contact with that person.

And we know that that's been done in New South Wales. We've asked for the data to be presented publicly from Victoria.

And as you would have had, many, many people have reported that that hasn't happened in their case, and so we're encouraging the transparency which will help everybody to have the confidence which allows us to not have a standard of zero cases for 14 or 28 days before many people can resume the activities, which will help them with mental health, which will help them with their health.

This is all about protecting people's health and if we have strong contact tracing and testing and borders and people maintaining the distancing as Victorians have done magnificently, then we'll protect their health but also protect their mental health and that's so critical.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

A lot of people think you're politicising this, Minister. I want to ask you a bit more about aged care but are you making partisan hay while the sun shines?

GREG HUNT:

Gosh, I suspect I’ve been very moderate in my language, and we're encouraging and supporting. We need to be honest about the challenges.

You know, eight out of eight states and territories have done an incredible job on testing. Victoria's done a great job on testing. The tracing we know has been an issue here but it's improving. We're assisting, the ADF’s assisting, the fact that.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Would it have been any different in New South Wales? You know that some of the epidemiologists you quoted like Professor MacIntyre, she said that New South Wales would have been in exactly the same place.

New South Wales hasn’t had to deal with the number of cases we've had, have they?

GREG HUNT:

I think it's all about when you have an outbreak, whether you can deal with that outbreak. And what we see is that New South Wales has had multiple outbreaks in recent months. And they've been able to contact trace them to the ground.

And as a result, tests and isolate those that may be at risk of having the virus or spreading the virus, and therefore prevent the sort of outbreaks that we've seen in Victoria.

And that's been immensely important, the fact that our officials from Victoria are going to New South Wales is great, that they've adopted the localised model, that they've adopted the automated model which the Chief Scientist has helped them develop - Alan Finkel has worked with them.

And these are really important developments and so rather than be critical, I want to welcome them, but these will make a difference to how quickly we can move forward.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

If I can- I appreciate you giving us some of your time. If I can just address aged care? If I can address one issue. At the end of August, you and your colleagues announced an extension of the COVID funding for aged care, so 420 people had died in federally funded aged care homes in Victoria on 31 August when you made the announcement.

But there was some- there was some specific money there for a person in every aged care home to be in charge of infection control, an onsite clinical lead. Why did it take so long to get to that point?

GREG HUNT:

Well, this was an additional measure taken over and above everything else. When you go back to March, we actually announced surge workforce and we also announced infection control training right across the country.

There have been over 1.2 million infection control units for aged care which have been studied. And that’s been going on right through. In addition to that, public hospitals, private hospital support-

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Can I interrupt again, Minister? Only because that announcement at the end of August was specifically money for someone to look after infection control in aged care homes. Shouldn't that have happened sooner?

GREG HUNT:

Well, this was an additional element that came about because of the fact that you had massive community outbreak in Victoria. Wherever there have been mass community outbreaks, then nobody's immune.

And so, this was a response to the Victorian situation and I think that's around the world what we've been able to see, to look at the actions that people have taken.

The fact that we have been able as a country to have saved thousands and thousands of lives by the act- by the early actions, I think is a huge national achievement. But you always keep taking additional steps in response to every circumstance.

RAFAEL EPSTEIN:

Appreciate your time. Thank you.

GREG HUNT:

Thanks Raf.

Ministers: