Date published: 
14 October 2021
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

GREG HUNT:

Thank you to everybody for joining us today and I’m pleased to be able to report that the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the TGA, Australia's medical regulator, has provided provisional determination, which allows for Pfizer to submit their application for the Pfizer vaccine for 5 to 11-year-olds.

That will be done on an expedited basis. And so there are then three stages from here. Pfizer will need to submit its data, which we are hoping will come in the coming weeks. They’ve been working with the CEO of Australian Pfizer, Anne Harris, last week and this week to that effect.

Then the TGA, which has already begun its process of assessment, will assess the final data. And if they provide a green light, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation will also do their consideration. And if they provide a green light, then we provide the vaccine.

We're very confident that all of these processes will proceed, but, as ever, we follow the medical advice.

What does it mean? It means that we have the supply, we have the distribution mechanisms. At the moment, we're seeing roughly over 300,000 vaccines a day on weekdays, and a similar number over the course of the weekend, that are being distributed.

And we will just continue going on, as we've done with 12 to 15-year-olds, as we've done with the boosters for the severely immunocompromised. And so I think that's a very important sign and it offers additional support and protection for parents and families. It's coming at an earlier time than we had previously expected, so I'm very, very pleased about that.

In terms of the rollout, I am pleased to be able to say that we've had over 320,000 doses in the last 24 hours, and that now takes us to 31.679 million. So over 31-and-two-thirds-million doses delivered in Australia.

In particular, our first doses have now risen to 83.6 per cent, and our second doses are increasing at approximately a per cent a day on weekdays, of 65.4 per cent. So, that protection is really coming in around the country.

It's a very important number and I want to thank Australians who are coming back for their second dose, and continue to urge them to do it. For those that haven't had their first dose yet, there is ample access right around the country and we would urge you to continue to come forward. Those numbers are increasing every day, but we'd urge you to continue to come forward.

Two particular groups that I just want to focus on briefly: Firstly, is the 12- to 15-year-olds - I mentioned them before. We've now had 690,000 12 to 15-year-olds come through in less than a month. And that, I think, is just a great effort.

The figure is now 55.5 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds that have had first doses. But I think, very importantly, the second-dose program for the 12 to 15-year-olds is already well under way. 190,000 12 to 15-year-olds, already 15.3 per cent of them have had a second dose.

So, to the kids and to the parents, thank you for keeping up with your second doses and making sure that's occurring quickly.

At the other end of the spectrum, the 70-pluses have now reached 97 per cent first-dose coverage. That must be undoubtedly one of the highest rates in the world. And, in particular, they've already reached 83.9 per cent second dose.

So, very important coverage and protection in that age group where people are most vulnerable.

I also want to make a brief announcement in terms of medical research, and then I'll ask Sonya Bennett, our Deputy Chief Medical Officer, to deal with both the 5 to 11-year-olds and, in particular, though, one of the health data components, which is an area where she's a national expert.

There's $30 million that I'm delighted to announce is being released for grant application rounds, competitive grant application rounds, under the Medical Research Future Fund. Two programs - a $20 million program under the Emerging Priorities Program, which is focusing on childhood and teen musculoskeletal. And this is about diagnosis and treatment.

Many young kids, many teens, will have spinal conditions. It could be something - or more broadly, musculoskeletal conditions, it could be something such as juvenile arthritis and it can be painful and debilitating, which of and in itself is a real concern for parents.

But prolonged chronic pain can, at any age, have an impact on mental health. And so this research is, I think, really timely and very important.

The other part of it is $10 million, under our Health Data Program, to focus on emerging pathways for health data. It's an area where Sonya Bennett, our Deputy Chief Medical Officer, is genuinely one of our national experts and leaders.

So I'm delighted to turn over to Sonya on the Health Data Program, but also on the rollout.

SONYA BENNETT:

Thank you very much, Minister. Morning, everybody.

So, I'll start with the vaccine rollout first and the announcement around the TGA provisional determination for the Pfizer vaccine for 5 to 12-year-olds. So, I think that's a very welcome move and progression.

As we know, children are less likely to get infected, they are less likely to have severe disease, and also less likely to transmit the infection to others. However, as vaccination rates increase in those people eligible to receive vaccination, we will - and, in fact, have seen - increased rates of infection in children.

So, this is a welcome step, I think, and really serves to further protect children and their families, and schools as well - you know, support schools staying open as well. As we know, schooling and education is very important for children.

And as we move into reopening Australia in the phases, we want to see schools stay open as well, and that will further support that, so that's very welcome.

And just moving on to the announcements about research investment. As the Minister said, any investment in research is always welcome, particularly the investment in funds for youth, young children and adults around musculoskeletal diseases.

Because any disease is debilitating, musculoskeletally, but particularly for children who haven’t, you know, we don't expect to see that sort of disability in children, and so investment in research is very welcome.

But with respect to health data, I think it's very timely. We've got an extensive range of population health, and health service data sets around the country, both at a state and a national level. And all of those data sets serve a specific purpose and are all useful in their own right.

But the ability, the investment in capability to further enhance linkage of those data sets is a really powerful tool to better support researchers in moving forward and doing research in both understanding diseases, preventing diseases, treatments, and policy development and evaluation.

So, it's a very welcome step forward. And I think the other benefits that we'll see from that investment are just, you know, reduction in duplication of data sets.

So, if you're able to link the different information across data sets, then it reduces duplication, improves efficiency, and really makes that information much more powerful and improves the quality of data.

So, I think that's a very welcome addition, very timely in COVID. We've seen how important data is for informing our policy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and I think that's going to go a long way and will be very welcomed by researchers as well as policymakers.

GREG HUNT:         

Thanks, Sonya. So, with the questions, I might start with Rachel and then if we work across the room, please.

So, Rachel?

JOURNALIST:

Thanks, Minister. We’ve heard this morning from the COVID-19 committee that Indigenous double dose vaccination rates are 23 per cent behind the rest of the general population.

An acceleration effort was started a couple of months ago, but what else is being done? Are you going to boost that acceleration program to try and bring these vaccination rates up?

GREG HUNT:

Sure. So, Indigenous rates at the moment, 57.5 per cent first dose, 42.3 per cent second dose.

And as Pat Turner, who’s the CEO of the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation, said, it’s not a question of access. It’s very much a question of either hesitancy or confidence. And Pat was absolutely clear with health ministers in that statement.

And so our task now is to work collectively, of federal government, state government, Indigenous leaders, Indigenous representatives, and media, to help encourage and boost that take-up. Because you actually see that difference that you talked about in urban areas.

So, in parts of Western Sydney, where they're at very, very high rates of vaccination and there's been extremely good access, you still have a differential. And so it's very much about three things going forwards.

One is the continued program of rolling out, around the country, and presenting and presenting and presenting. And so it's not just one opportunity. We're providing multiple opportunities.

Two, we're taking a different approach, and there's a lot more work which was done, for example, in Wilcannia, of having to literally go house to house. And so within communities, there's a lot more direct outreach, house to house. Even though there's the access, even though there's the availability.

And the third is the confidence-building program around the country, and that's very much a partnership with Indigenous communities, and we're focusing on what is the message that best works in each community. So, those rates have come up significantly. Right from the outset, this has been a priority.

There has been, you know, as Ken Wyatt said, as Pat Turner has said, hesitancy or a sense that: I'm safe, I don't need to do this. But we're continuing that work and that message through those three programs.

Andrew?

JOURNALIST:

Minister, a couple of questions. And I'm going to sound like a broken record - I'm going to go to the question I asked earlier in the week, and it's about ATAGI and this 5 to 11 cohort.

Because Allen Cheng, ATAGI co-chair, said there's no guarantee that even if TGA does give it the okay, that ATAGI will, because he says the risk of our kids getting very sick from COVID is very low, and that's a very different equation which will frustrate parents who want their kids jabbed. I happen to be one of those parents.

So, what would you do if you had that case where TGA says it's OK, ATAGI says no. That's where your powers might come into play.

And secondly, what are you going to do about AstraZeneca supplies for the region, given that AstraZeneca, also damaged, I'd say, by ATAGI and politicians - reputational damage, that is - what are you going to do to ensure that AstraZeneca supplies get to the region? Places like PNG, where COVID is rampant?

GREG HUNT:

Sure. So, look, no change in policy or position since the question earlier on in the week. And that is, we take a double green-light approach.

ATAGI is our advisory body on vaccines and the TGA is our safety regulator. And so we take a double green-light approach to that. That's been the situation.

They were cautious in assessing the 12 to 15 year olds. They assessed the data carefully, they made their decision. We're rolling that program out now with 690,000 first doses and 190,000 second doses. And so we'll continue to follow that medical advice.

In terms of AstraZeneca, I've spoken with the chair of CSL, Brian McNamee, today, and been engaging with Liz Chatwin, who's the Australian CEO of AstraZeneca.

Both have confirmed that CSL and AstraZeneca are on track to complete the full 50 million dose production run in Australia and the 3.8 million supply from overseas. So, 53.8 million AstraZeneca doses.

So, our expectation and our plan is that that program will be completed in full. And all of those extra doses are being supplied to the region.

So, Fiji has very much built its vaccination program with the support of Australian AstraZeneca. It's made a huge difference there. There's a very significant offer. DFAT is coordinating it right across the region. PNG, as you mentioned, our Pacific Forum friends and neighbours, Indonesia, Vietnam we have been able to support, and others.

So, all of these items are coming together and we'll continue to support them both directly with our AstraZeneca, which I'm really pleased to be able to say, the confirmation I've had today, on track, delivery in full. But also through the COVAX facility, which we have supported, and direct support for the region.

Now, Fi, I think?

JOURNALIST:

Minister, thank you. What do you think is going on in Victoria? Why are they still hitting those record case numbers?

And what would you say to people in Victoria, who might be nervous about restrictions easing while case numbers are still so high?

GREG HUNT:

Sure. Look, I'll address the policy. On the epidemiology, I might ask Sonya to address that, if that's okay.

On the policy side, the road map is a national road map based very much on the strongest science from a Victorian organisation, the Doherty Institute. And so the Doherty Institute has set out a road map. It recognises the capacity for localised responses as part of it.

And what we're seeing now is that we have higher vaccination rates, which are increasing rapidly in Victoria. I think as of yesterday, with today's figures still to be updated, 86.7 per cent first doses and 61.5 per cent second.

And my message to Victorians is: if you haven't been vaccinated, please be vaccinated. If you're due for your second dose, please come forward.

But also don't forget all of the basics that we learnt in February of last year: washing your hands, keeping your distance, wearing your mask. These things are still the basic protections. As my medical team says to me all the time: the disease travels from human to human.

On the epidemiology, Sonya, I might ask if you can give your advice, please?

SONYA BENNETT:

Thank you, Minister.

Yes, so I understand that there was a significant increase in cases that Victoria reported today. It's disappointing but not unexpected. So, we have to remember that it is a fine balance, and we've seen high daily case numbers for some time in Victoria.

They're not quite at the levels of vaccination coverage for the reopening plan as we progress. And it all hinges around that effective reproductive number. So, if every case is transmitting to more than one case, we'll see those numbers continue to rise.

But what we need to see, which is a combination of measures of increasing vaccination coverage, the community continuing to implement those measures, such as hygiene, getting tested when unwell, check-in codes, supporting contact tracing, and complying with the social restrictions in place, we should see that reproductive number come under one. That's what we want to see, and that's when we'll start seeing case numbers come down.

And it's a fine balance at the moment. But we don't expect that case numbers are going to rise exponentially in Victoria, but we'll probably continue to see high case numbers for some time, and then expect to see them come down as vaccination continues to increase daily, which is what we're seeing.

GREG HUNT:

Great. And behind Fi please. I apologise for not being able.

JOURNALIST:

It’s Chloe from Network 10.

Minister, in a couple of hours we’re going to get the latest unemployment figures which should take into account the lockdowns in New South Wales, Victoria, and the ACT. Are you bracing for really high numbers?

And either way, does it truly reflect that the struggles of, of Australians and businesses going through these lockdowns?

GREG HUNT:

So, look, I’ll respect, respectfully allow the numbers to, to come in and speak for themselves. I don’t have any early insight on that.

But we do know that these lockdowns have been immensely hard. That’s why the COVID Disaster Relief Payment was not only put in place, but why it’s been so important - it keeps people connected to their employers. And so the lockdowns have been hard for, for workers, and for families, they’ve been hard for individuals and also for small business owners.

And so, you know, these Disaster Relief payments have kept people attached to their employers. But we’ll, we’ll let the numbers speak for themselves on that.

Our plan is, the vaccination allows the progressive opening, and we’re seeing that progressive opening in New South Wales, and others are on a path to that as the numbers increase. And that allows for people, who are employers, to have the confidence that they can have their business back, which allows so many more people to be connected to their employer than would otherwise be the case.

But it’s been hard, and Australians have been magnificent. And it’s another difficult day in Victoria. But we’ll get there, you know, we really will.

The fact that the vaccination rates are continuing to, to increase in New South Wales and Victoria are at over a per cent today for second doses, that there’s the ACT at over 97 per cent first doses - these are important signs.

And we’re beginning to see some momentum in Queensland and WA coming through with their, with their first doses.

Now, if I might come on the, my left, to the front, please.

JOURNALIST:

Hi, Minister. It’s Jade from the Herald Sun. Just back on AstraZeneca manufacturing, has Australia considered extending the contract beyond 50 million to help support more of the developing countries in our region. And if not, why?

GREG HUNT:         

Well, we’ve already committed to supporting developing countries in the region, and the way to do that is through the, through the AstraZeneca contract.

The agreement with CSL was always for 50 million production - they’re not a contract manufacturer, they’re one of the world’s leading vaccination producers of it in their own right. So they have taken a massive disruption. They’ve been, really, upstanding, outstanding, Australian citizens.

They’ve acted for the national interest. They’ve diverted themselves enormously. They’ve worked, literally, around the clock. And I know the teams, I’ve met the teams, they’ve been working, you know, 24 hours. So that was always the commitment.

Our commitment to the region is through AstraZeneca, through direct doses, and through the COVAX facility. So this is one of three ways, and there's a lot more doses. Pretty much everything that's produced from here on in will go to the region.

And, as I mentioned before, the Fiji case is a, is a really powerful one, where we were able to provide large volumes of early doses to the region direct from Australia, and that has helped Fiji.

So we expect to complete that contract. It's on track. It's on time, reaffirmed this morning, both by the CSL global Chair, by the AstraZeneca Australian CEO, and I couldn't be more thankful.

Behind please.

JOURNALIST:

Minister, just a follow up to that. Aid organisations have expressed the need for ongoing access and assured supply of vaccines to the Pacific and to other developing nations. If that, if we're not extending that contract into 2022 after those 53 million doses, are we going to be supplying the Pacific with some of our Astra- sorry, with some of our Pfizer, some of our Novavax?

How are we going to continue that supply into countries that don't have adequate supplies?

GREG HUNT:         

So we have an ongoing commitment to the, to the region. We have over $530 million that's been committed all up to vaccine supply across the region.

We have over 60 million doses that we're focussing on, in particular, as a nation, and that's an ongoing commitment. So, the contract is being delivered in full. The doses are being shared.

But it was only ever one of the methods, and it was never contemplated that CSL would become a contract manufacturer for others. They have important global vaccine roles, as well as Australian vaccine, anti-venom, Q fever, influenza, and other roles to be playing.

And so we have a strong, clear, ongoing commitment to the region. Of all the countries in the world, we've been one of the most generous and most focussed because it's the right thing to do.

And I know talking with other leaders in the region, that they are deeply appreciative of what Australia has done.

I was talking with the Vietnamese Ambassador recently and the support that we've been able to provide has been very helpful to them.

And then just up in the back corner, please.

JOURNALIST:

Thanks, Minister. It's just Jared from the Canberra Times. A number of state and territory health ministers have asked you to extend the 50/50 funding arrangement for public hospitals until 2023.

Is that something you would consider in light of what COVID will likely do to our health system in the next 12 months?

GREG HUNT:         

So the COVID partnership is just that, it's a COVID partnership. It has been extended, it's on an ongoing basis during the course of the pandemic. And we've already paid over $6.3 billion under that. And we're also, you know, deeply engaged.

We have increased our funding under the National Health Reform Agreement by, you know, significantly more than the states and territories, over 70 per cent compared with just over 40 per cent for the states and territories. We'd encourage them to match the increases that we have put in place on that.

Plus, we have responsibility for 100 per cent of the vaccine costs. And all up our pandemic response on just the health measures is at over $30 billion. So at this stage, we have the hospitals agreement where we've increased our funds by well over 70 per cent since we came into government, and the states by just over 40 per cent; and we have the $6.3 billion for the pandemic agreement. And that's ongoing.

I know it was reported last week on one current affairs programme that that had terminated on 30 June – that was, that was incorrect.

And so it's ongoing. It's a pandemic measure, and it's making a big difference. And then, of course, we have the private hospitals guarantee where we again pay 100 per cent, and that's been utilised in New South Wales and Victoria in different roles.

So strong, clear support today. The critical things are we're still delivering over two million doses over the course of the last seven days, so we're running at a rolling seven-day average of over two million doses. Those protections are coming in.

And the news of a provisional determination, so opening the door for a rapid assessment of Pfizer for five to 11 year olds is good news for parents. So the provisional determination of Pfizer for five to 11 year olds, good news for parents.

Thanks very much, everybody. Take care and all the best.

Ministers: