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Melbourne press conference on 3 January on new sotrovimab units, health programs, Indigenous smoking rates and vaccination rollout

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt at the Melbourne Press Conference on new sotrovimab units, health programs, Indigenous smoking rates and vaccination rollout

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

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I’m delighted to be able to announce that the Australian Government has secured and purchased an additional 45,000 units of sotrovimab.

Sotrovimab is one of the world's leading treatments for mild to moderate COVID for people who might otherwise develop severe conditions. It has a 79 per cent effectiveness rate in reducing serious illness, hospitalisation, and loss of life.

It's not for everybody. It's based on clinical advice. But it's one of the reasons that we are seeing significantly lower ventilation rates, and I'll address those afterwards, along with vaccination and the less severe nature of Omicron.

So these things come together. We'll take our total purchase of sotrovimab, which is, as I say, the monoclonal antibody, the treatment that's been used for patients that might graduate from mild to moderate to very severe conditions and we’ll now have a total of 81,000 units available with these additional 46,000.

So it's all part of the process of protecting Australians, and as we adapt to Omicron, we're able to better protect Australians, and we're seeing that with the results in the ventilation units.

At the moment, there are 51 Australians, as of last night, who are currently on ventilation for COVID. This is actually down from 54 patients nationwide on the 15th of December.

So, almost three weeks later, there's actually been a reduction in patients on ventilation. So all of these things are coming together to help protect Australians.

Now I want to reference a couple of things today. One is the general health of Australians as we start a new year, and it's a reminder to all Australians that whilst the focus has been on COVID, the other elements of our lives, whether it's in relation to cardiac conditions, the risks of cancer, the risks of diabetes, all of these are continuous.

So we're launching a process to encourage people to have their health checks; during the course of the coming weeks or months, to visit your GP; and to update your screening. And this is immensely important.

For example, in relation to the three national cancer screening programs, there is the cervical cancer screening program every five years, the bowel cancer screening program every two years with the home kits, and the breast screening program every two years for women aged 40 to 74. And if you are due, or in fact, if you're overdue for your screen, please catch up.

This is a chance in the new year just to focus the mind on: I have to catch up with my breast, my bowel, my cervical cancer screening. Or if you haven't seen your GP and you are due to see your GP, please come forward to do it. They're doing a great job.

So, the other thing that I want to emphasise is that we are, in particular, focusing on reducing smoking rates and Indigenous smoking rates. 19,000 people a year lose their lives in some way, shape or form to smoking-related conditions. Lung cancer is almost half of that alone.

And so it puts into perspective some of the tragedy we've seen in the last year, knowing that each year, every year, 19,000 people lose their lives to smoking conditions.

So we are launching a $180 million Indigenous quit campaign designed by and with and for Indigenous Australians to help them reduce the rates, which are three times that of the national average. So this is a particular blight and a particular scourge on Indigenous Australians.

And frankly, to those tobacco companies that are targeting Indigenous Australians, stop it. It's disgusting. It's deadly. And frankly, it's completely inappropriate.

Now, in terms of vaccination, we know, tomorrow, the numbers will increase of people who are eligible for their vaccination. They will become eligible.

They won't become overdue as some have indicated. This is the start of the process where people who are four months or more from their second dose will become eligible for the booster. And I think this is a great thing.

So far, we've had over 2.5 million boosters. Those boosters are more than half a million ahead of schedule, ahead of expectation as to where we would have been at this time. And we will go from 4.25 million Australians who are eligible to 8 million Australians, and they become eligible. As of tomorrow, an additional 3.75 million approximately who become eligible.

And so that 3.75 million additional Australians, obviously that will occur over the course of the coming weeks and months but we would encourage you to book in. There is enough vaccine for every Australian to have their booster already in country and all orders are being met. And I think that's immensely important.

At the same time, we're on track with TGA approval, supply in country. The distribution process already beginning for children's vaccines to commence on the 10th of January, a week from today.

And so, again, not all of these will occur on the one day, but we want to make sure that every parent books their child in between five years and up to 12 years of age. It can help protect them, but it can also mean that there's stability and above all else, it protects the older members of the family.

Our vaccination rates have reached 42.8 million doses, 94.4 per cent, and 91.5 per cent second dose with, as I say, over 2.5 million boosters already delivered and that's set to increase significantly as the state clinics join the pharmacies and the GPs in this rollout program. So, we're looking forward to that, and as they lift their numbers back towards where they were. So I think that's extremely important.

The last thing is, just in terms of Omicron, the latest advice that the Prime Minister and myself have from Professor Paul Kelly, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Medical Officer’s team, and the work they are doing with ATAGI and others, is that it is now clear that Omicron is both more transmissible and less severe.

What that means is, that the risk is not of hospital beds or places being overwhelmed – particularly ICU, particularly more so ventilation – but always in terms of balancing workforce.

So, National Cabinet this week will continue to focus on the workforce measures, and as we look around the world, we are seeing similar discussions and similar changes.

So, the nature of a disease which is more transmissible but less severe means that the threat to individuals may be less, the threat to hospital places – as is evidenced in those lower ventilation rates of going from 54 people ventilated for COVID on 15 December to 51 as of last night, and these numbers will move around.

But that just shows the decrease in severity, coupled with vaccinations, coupled with treatments is protecting lives, and it gives people, I think rightly, a measure for focus, but the ability to be calm and the ability to feel safe.

And so all of those things are coming together – that’s what National Cabinet is focusing on this week. And again, I want to thank Australians for coming forward, but now is the time, the coming weeks, to be vaccinated for your booster.

But if you are in that 5.5 per cent that is yet to come forward for a first dose, or those that are still to complete second doses, please do that. And please feel clear that it’s absolutely in your child’s interest to have them vaccinated over the course of the coming weeks.

I’ll start, if I may, with those on the phone, start with Jade, and then come to Dana in the room after I have been through the others.



Thanks, Minister. Aussies across the country are struggling to get rapid antigen tests. Are you concerned that people who are positive will spread COVID at work and events because they are unable to test themselves beforehand?

And what is your advice to people who can’t get their hands on a rapid antigen test? Does this pose a risk to the economy if workplaces are forced to close due to the spread?


Well, so far we have had just over 55 million PCR tests. There are well over 84 million tests that the states have ordered, and the Commonwealth is also in the process of securing over $370 million worth of tests, and we have already secured 10 million tests.

But also people are buying around the world, and so having spoken with some of the major providers, they are bringing in supplies every couple of days, and so there are differing options to be tested.

One is the PCR test as is appropriate for people who are most at risk through the state system, and we have seen consistently over 200,000 tests a day – over 55 million tests.

But already, 84 million tests of rapid antigen, 1.5 times the total number of tests over two years done by PCR have been secured, but with more to come.

The second is, the state system is providing the rapid antigen tests, and we have covered 100 per cent of the vaccine costs, and 50 per cent of those test costs for about $2.5 billion.

And then, thirdly, there is the over-the-counter purchasing, which will be supplemented by the support for concessional card holders, which the Prime Minister was addressing. So, very considerable supplies.

Obviously, there's high global demand, but just quietly, Australian governments have gone into the market and secured that support for those with health conditions and those that are concessional card holders. And then in addition to that, there's a very strong private market.



Yes, Minister, thanks very much for that. Just following on the issue with the tests. With the private market, we have had the head of Chemist Warehouse today say that the tests should have the GST removed from them. Similar, I guess, to like, how women's sanitary products don’t have the GST. Is that something the Government is considering?

And with the Prime Minister's comments last week about, you know, wanting to give private industry certainty by not having- by the Government not making tests more freely available on a wide scale basis, who exactly from the private industry wanted that assurance?

Because, you know, the suppliers are saying they didn't ask for it. The supermarkets have said they didn't ask for it, the pharmacists said they didn't ask for it. Who actually wanted it so that the Government did not provide tests for free?


Yeah, so let me address that.

In term of the supply, I think the point is just common sense that the Government provides the health products. And in addition to that, if there were an unconstrained flow of completely unpriced products, so as there was an infinite supply to an infinite number of people, then of course that demand couldn't be met.

I think the common sense of providing an infinite supply of free goods somehow has been lost in this discussion, and I know that the opposition was effectively saying unconstrained amounts of an infinite number to an infinite number of people, and that's people who don't understand supply chains.

And so the strongest supply chain is when you can see that the market is bringing it in. That's been our concern, to look at the fact that there is high global demand, and that you have a functioning market and making sure that that's what continues.

That's the critical point there, that that basic common sense of understanding you can't have an infinite supply of a free good.

And what we do know then on additional supply - and again, can I correct one of the myths, even unfortunately in your question, Andrew? There have been 55 million PCR tests. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has rated Australia's testing system as one of the most accurate in the world, of the 55 million.

Now there's another 84 million tests, which are available over the coming weeks and months. Plus, that number is set to increase dramatically to well over 100 million once, I'm aware that the current purchasing from state and Commonwealth, is in the market. So more than double what has been done in two years will be done in two months.

So that's a dramatic increase in testing. And in addition to that, there's the capacity for people to purchase privately for their businesses and otherwise.

But if there were no constraint on that, then people would go down and take crates and boxes away, and that's obviously not remotely consistent with the real world. And I’m frankly astonished, astonished, that an opposition seeking to be a government would ever put forward such a proposition.

And we're focussing to make sure that concession card holders will have that additional access over and above the health system, which has been delivering over 200,000 tests a day.

Now in relation to GST, that's entirely a matter for the states. The Prime Minister, myself, the Treasurer, have discussed it. That money doesn't go to the Commonwealth, that goes to the states.

It took a long while for us, the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, and myself, in our different roles at the time worked to have that GST removed on sanitary products. It took a lot of convincing for some of the states.

We're very happy to do that here, but it would require the states to sign off on it, because they forego that revenue. And so under the rules of the national agreement, they would need to sign off on that. But there are no barriers at the Commonwealth level.



Thanks, Minister. National Cabinet’s been working on guidelines for the use of rapid antigen tests since November.

Obviously, we've got some detail last week, but how soon will we have the final details on how those tests will be provided to vulnerable cohorts, including Indigenous communities or in schools?

And separately on boosters, you mentioned that it's important for people to get boosters as they're eligible, but currently 16 and 17 year olds are not. Is that being considered by the TGA and ATAGI?


So at this stage, there are no applications from the providers, and they are considering whether or not their international work will lead them around the world to put in applications.

We don't have any applications for 16 to 17 year olds. They are considered because of both their age and because of the relative dose, having received a full adult dose under the age of 18. Indeed, everybody 12 and up receives a full adult dose.

And so at this stage, there are no applications. And I'm not aware, but I stand to be corrected of applications in other countries yet, either the United States, UK, or Europe.

They, along with Australia, tend to be some of the earliest jurisdictions to receive those applications. So none at this point in time that I'm aware of.

Was there another question there, Rachel?


Yes, it was on the national guidelines for rapid antigen testing and how soon are we going to have details about that in vulnerable communities?


So that's being discussed at National Cabinet this week. I'm working today with the team that's continued working over the weekend.

The Prime Minister is engaging in it and so we're actually again ahead of schedule as to where we expect it to be; 84 million RATs contracted. That will increase to over 100 million shortly. And there's a significant private market in-flow.

And so again, I think it's very important to put all of this into perspective. Fifty-five million tests in two years, 84 million going to well north of 100 million, doubling that in two months. And so that puts into perspective, plus the purchases that people are making individually.

So those guidelines are being developed during the course of this week. In fact, they're well advanced, discussed at National Cabinet. And then over the course of the next week, the Prime Minister will have more to say.



Thanks very much Minister. You mentioned, and the Prime Minister's mentioned too, that you can't just make the rapid tests free, that there are supply constraints and those sorts of things.

The Council of Small Business today has made the point that while you have a lot of individuals chasing tests, businesses are also chasing tests. So that can sometimes be a double up and that might be a factor in why some are finding it difficult to get these tests.

Have you considered or have there been discussions about improving or easing supply for businesses, particularly hospitality like cafes and restaurants that are just trying to source enough tests to get their staff cleared so they can work?

Many of them don't have the time or the costs available to go to every chemists chasing for these tests.


Well, look two things. One is we know that – and this is exactly the point to address Andrew's question – we want the strong supply coming in to pharmacies and to the supermarkets that are selling them, and that's exactly what's happening.

But Australia is not unique, and sometimes the perspective is lost. What you see is unlike masks and gowns, and other critical equipment back in February and March of last year, there was both a demand increase, but there was a supply decrease. Here we're seeing a demand increase and a supply increase in parallel.

But the idea that, and when you consider it in a practical sense that an infinite amount would be given out, the opposition perspective, which they've been running around trying to shop, is just sheer folly and that would divert resources from those that need them.

So going from 55 million tests in two years to over 100 million additional tests in two months, that I think puts it into perspective that there's a massive increase in the number of tests that are available all up for businesses.

What we're seeing is very significant imports. We've now approved additional rapid antigen tests through the TGA. They have, I think, the strongest safety protocols in the world.

We've sadly seen in the United States two major tests have to be withdrawn because they were not reaching the standards which had originally been claimed. And so far, fortunately, we haven't faced that challenge in Australia.

Additional tests, though, approved literally over the recent days. We're now at 18 rapid antigen tests in Australia, strong supply coming into the country, strong supply going into the pharmacies and the supermarkets. And that just means it will continue to grow. Plus, the support that the Government provides.

So, let's be clear, through the health process for health reasons, these tests are free and we'll have, on top of the 55 million PCR to date, which will continue, we'll have over 100 million rapid antigen tests, more than double that which is available over the course of the next two months.

So, I just wanted to put all of that into perspective.

Dana in the room has been very patient.


Yeah. So, the 5 years and older vaccine rollout’s about to begin, is there sufficient supply to meet demand?


Yes, there is. We will have distributed over the course of the coming weeks up to three million doses for two million children. And so, there is more than enough supply.

That doesn't mean that on day one every child will have the vaccine, for the simple reason that there are only so many vaccinators.

This is why we really want to encourage the states to fully reopen and fully resource their state clinics. Those clinics at their peak were doing 40 per cent of a national total of over 300,000 a day.

They have dropped to below 20 per cent in recent days, which is understandable, given the Christmas and New Year requirements for leave for their staff.

But the pharmacies and the GPs have kept going; they have been amazing. And so now we want to see the states add to that.

But the simple answer on children's vaccines is approximately two million in the country, another million due very shortly, and they'll be made available to meet all of the orders.


And when will the GPs actually get their hands on those? Mukesh Haikerwal has spoken this morning and said he's not expecting to see them until the first day the rollout hits.


Well, it depends on the individual orders. I've heard that. Frankly, it's wrong. It's just wrong. I know this person has made many claims over a long period of time. It's just wrong.

During the course of this week in the lead up to 10 January, the doses are made available. And that's the important thing, and we're allowing the GPs to commence as they see fit. But the doses are in the country, the doses are tested, the doses are being delivered.


Why aren’t there a steady supply of rapid antigen tests secured for Australia over the December-January period? We're seeing massive shortages now.


Well, I think what you've seen is the Omicron disease has changed the balance. So, as we have less severe cases, but we have more transmissible cases

We actually, as a Federal Government, were in the market in August. We've provided continuous supply for aged care throughout that, which has been our part in it.

We know that many of the states were offered, and they've only recently, just prior to Christmas or since then, decided to take up the offers that have been made by suppliers. But we welcome that.

And what we see, of course, is that around the world – and again, this is something that's very important to understand – Omicron has seen a quadrupling of official cases. And so that changes the nature of it.

But also the decision to impose PCR tests on state travellers put enormous stress on that system. And I'm very pleased that Queensland has now dropped the requirement of PCR tests, and that means that there are people for non-health reasons that are requiring rapid antigen tests to travel interstate.

But there is actually a very significant flow into the country, as I say, double two years’ worth in two months.


We've also seen, though, that people are being charged up to $25 for a simple test. Is the Government going to step in and stop this blatant price gouging?


So, the Treasurer has already spoken to the ACCC, and they'll be reviewing whether or not there is any price gouging or whether that reflects the fact that there is a very high global demand at the moment and that that's a function of the supply chain.

I'll leave that to the ACCC to investigate, but we said we would do that last week, and the Treasurer has done that.


Does the ACCC actually have the power to impose penalties if price gouging is found?


Well, they have considerable powers. I’ll let others who are more familiar with their roles. They are a very tough cop on the beat.

Alright, look, I want to thank everybody. As I say, 46,000 units of Sotrovimab, it's one of the treatments which is keeping people safe, keeping them off ventilation, keeping them out of ICU.

The number of Australians with COVID on ventilation was 54 on 15 December. It's 51 as of last night.

And whilst these numbers will move around, what is the overarching thing that's happening in Australia? There are more vaccines, more boosters, more rapid antigen tests and more treatments.

And the fact that we now have a disease which right around the world is leading to more cases, but to vastly fewer severe cases by comparison with what we had seen previously on a per capita basis of those infected is an immensely heartening development.

There are challenges in every phase of this pandemic, but Australia has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, one of the lowest rates of death and loss of life in the world.

And we have one of the strongest economic recoveries, as the Treasurer set out, with almost half a million jobs since September being created.

So, stay safe. Come forward for your first dose, your second dose or your booster, and be aware that there are important treatments that are being made available.

Take care everybody.


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