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Minister Hunt's Press Conference in Canberra on 8 October 2021 with an update on the vaccination rollout, vaccine booster program and the concussion in sports program

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's Press Conference in Canberra on 5 October 2021 with an update on the vaccination rollout, vaccine booster program and the concussion in sports program

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

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Well, welcome everybody, and I’m joined today by the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Paul Kelly. And it's a difficult day in Victoria, but there are important reasons for hope, and there is real momentum in the vaccination program.

In particular, we have just had the highest three-day period in the entire rollout, even though we're at over 80 per cent first doses. And so that's real momentum, Australians stepping forward.

1,018,000 vaccinations over a three-day period, the highest three-day period in the rollout, and what that says is that Australians are still coming forward in record numbers to be vaccinated. And if you haven't been vaccinated, or if you're due for your second dose, now is your time.

Please do not wait, please come forward, please protect yourself, please protect everybody else in the community, and please help bring us closer to those freedoms, which is such an inalienable part of our daily existence as Australians.

Very significantly, we've had three 330,000 vaccinations in the last 24 hours, which, to last night, took us to 29.97 million vaccinations. So at about 10 AM today, Australia will have passed the 30 million vaccination mark.

Building on that, what we know is that means we're now at 81.5 per cent of first doses and 60.2 per cent second doses. Australia has now passed the 80 per cent mark the first doses and the 60 per cent mark for second doses.

What that means in the international context is in terms of whole of population first dose coverage, we've not only passed the USA, but we've now passed Israel and the EU.

And that's a measure of what Australians are doing by coming forwards. But there's more work to be done, and I would emphasise what I said earlier, to continue to urge people to come forward.

One other critical thing there is that our pharmacies – I want to give them a shout-out today – they've passed the 1 million vaccination mark. And to the Pharmacy Guild and the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, respectively, they and all their members have played a great job in vaccinating Australians.

At the moment, AstraZeneca, Moderna, they’re being delivered in our pharmacies, and they’re helping to drive these record numbers. So, if you haven't been vaccinated, call your doctor, call your pharmacy, call a Commonwealth vaccination clinic, call the state clinic, and any of these will have opportunities.

Now, when we look at what these vaccinations mean, we can see in New South Wales, as those numbers have dropped from being approximately 1500 a day at the peak, they’re now almost a third of the numbers in Victoria. But that vaccination program provides real reasons for hope in Victoria.

And I know those numbers are confronting, but I also know that the vaccination numbers are going to make a huge difference. We can see that in New South Wales, and Paul can talk to that more generally.

But as first doses and second doses rise, the protection rises. And that has led to, not just the flattening of the curve, but the dropping of numbers in New South Wales, and that will have the same impact in Victoria.

Another important part of what we're doing is the booster program, and I'm pleased to be able to announce the first stage of the booster program today.

We've received advice from ATAGI, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, recommending that boosters, or third shots, be made available for the immunocompromised. And so we'll move to do that from Monday.

This is for the severely immunocompromised, a group of up to 500,000. Paul, as Chief Medical Officer, will speak more to that. But it's about providing additional protection.

The next stage, the general population stage of the booster program, we're expecting advice from ATAGI before the end of October, and we'll share that with the public. But we have over 150 million vaccines that are secured for the future, and so we're able to implement that on the time frame and with the urgency and immediacy that is suggested by ATAGI, if and when they provide that, but we're expecting that before the end of October.

In terms of other elements, the Chief Medical Officer has extended the hotspot in Victoria, and Paul will speak to that.

And then another very important thing, whilst we're doing our vaccination work, is to continue the work of health protection around the country. One issue, which I think will be immensely important to parents and to players, is concussion in sport.

Concussion affects many Australians on a temporary basis. And over 700,000 Australians have some form of brain damage. Concussion in sport can creep up. It's not just one incident.

But having met with Michael Tuck and the family of Shane Tuck, to talk with people about repetitive concussion and the impacts, is to understand how families’ lives can be devastated, and individuals, doing something they love, can nevertheless have long-term impacts.

So I'm delighted that as part of our Traumatic Brain Injury Mission, a $50 million mission, we are sponsoring the Australian Institute of Sport to lead a nationwide focus on concussion in sport. This is about protecting our sports players, helping to prevent concussion, and helping to treat and recover from concussion.

It's about giving people a long-term future, so as they can play the sport they love whilst protecting the brain, which is so fundamental to every element of their being and their lives.

So with that, I'm pleased to turn over to Professor Paul Kelly, the Chief Medical Officer.


Thank you, Minister, and good morning. So just to follow up on a couple of the issues that the Minister raised, so firstly, about the third doses, so this is part of the ongoing work of ATAGI.

They are continuing to look at the situation internationally, look at the scientific evidence in relation to vaccines and their effectiveness that we're learning all the time from the rest of the world, as well as here in Australia.

So the announcement today is about the start of this program, which can start from today, certainly from next week, that in relation to people, it's a very specific group of the population that have an issue with their immune system.

So we know that vaccines work by stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies against COVID. It's the same for all vaccines. That's how they work. And unfortunately, some people that have immune systems that don't work as well as the general population, those vaccines may not cause- may not lead to that protection.

And so, the evidence is now clear that people in those categories of immune-compromised should receive a third dose. That should happen at a period after the second dose, between two and six months after that time of the second dose.

So, there is now a statement up on the website in Health listing the people that are now eligible for that third dose. I will be writing today to all medical practitioners, as I’ve done on several occasions through the vaccine rollout just to clarify that position and to give that guidance. And so, that can commence now.

Unfortunately, for some people in that position, even a third dose won’t lead to the same sort of response that two doses give for people that have intact immune systems. But at this stage, the ATAGI advice is for a third dose, not beyond that.

There are other elements there that I can go into during the questions and answers. But just to give you a sense of who is covered. It’s people that were already seen in Phase One of the vaccine rollout to be priority groups. So, people with active blood malignancy, blood cancer, people with other types of malignancy as well, people that have had organ transplants, people that have had stem cell transplants, people on immunosuppressive therapy.

So, there are people, of course, who have had transplants that have medications to dampen their immune system. But there are others on certain types of arthritis medication and steroids, for example. Those that are born with immunodeficiency, there is a group of those as well as people that are living with HIV who are not controlled under therapy. So, their CD4 count is low.

So, for people in those settings, I certainly encourage them to have a discussion with their medical practitioner as soon as possible and to book in for a third dose.

The other, I’ll be also releasing a statement today which is around a new policy of furloughing of healthcare workers. This is something that’s been agreed with states and territories as we move into a phase of living with COVID.

And as we know, there are three jurisdictions that are really in that phase already. And as we get further protection, with the rollout of vaccination, it’s important that we look closely and carefully at how we’re handling outbreaks of disease.

And that’s particularly the case in healthcare settings. It would include their primary care settings, GP surgeries and the like, pharmacies and aged care and disability care settings.

So, there are new guidelines that are being released today. There’s a media statement that’s just been put out from me relating to that. And it essentially does start to move towards what can happen when people are vaccinated.

So, this is again a callout for anyone that’s working in healthcare, in aged care, in disability care. This is now the time for you to get those vaccinations if you have not yet done so.

It will not only protect you; it will protect those you’re caring for, and in this new furloughing policy, will allow those workplaces to continue to work with the workforce that is protected. So, I wanted to talk about that.

The third element is really as, as Minister Hunt has mentioned, a difficult day for Victoria, but there is hope. We're seeing what is happening in New South Wales with our three ways we can mitigate against the spread of the virus.

We have public health and social measures, lockdowns in various places and other ways of limiting the spread of the virus. We have our testing, tracing, isolation and quarantine measures, and importantly, the spectacular and increasingly spectacular rollout of the vaccine right across Australia, but particularly in Victoria, in New South Wales and ACT, where they're getting to record numbers.

So as the vaccine rollout increases, we know that that does have an effect. We're seeing that right now in New South Wales, where they have gone past that peak, both in cases and particularly in hospitalisations and ventilation. That will happen, people in ICU, I mean.

That will happen in Victoria in the coming weeks. I'm absolutely certain that will be the case. We know that in Victoria, most of the people that are being affected by the virus are young, in their young adults and teenagers and children, and we know that they are the ones that are less likely to be severely affected by the virus.

But it's very important that they take up the opportunity, those that can get vaccinated. So, anyone over the age of 12. And that should continue over the coming weeks.

So, I'll leave it there now and we'll pass to questions. Minister, I'll let you take control of that.


Thanks, Paul. And if they could just flip the camera to the rest of the room, please, thank you very much. So, we'll start on the left and work across that.

Maybe you could identify yourself starting as I look out at the room from the left, and we'll just work over, please.


Is that me? Okay. I’ll start. I've got two questions. I'm not sure if it's Professor Kelly or the Minister, but just in terms of the furloughing policy, perhaps one for you, Professor Kelly.

Are you saying that fully vaccinated healthcare staff will no longer need to self-isolate if they come into contact with a COVID case?

And for you or the Minister, WA has the lowest vaccination rates in the country, and the Police Commissioner has set a New Year's Eve deadline to reach 80 per cent fully vaxxed. That's like two months after other states and territories.

Complacency is clearly a problem there. I'm just wondering what the Government is thinking to try and actually get vaccination rates up in states like WA.


Want to start, Minister?


Sorry, Minister. I think your audio was out.


If Paul can start on furloughing, please. And then I’ll start on WA after that.


Okay, so there's a whole raft of issues in relation to the furloughing policy. So, it's not quite as simple as what you said, but in other ways, it kind of is.

So, the vaccination of the healthcare worker is an important component, but also the nature of the spread within a healthcare setting. So it would depend on all of the things we've got used to; wearing of masks, the nature of the interaction between someone who's positive and that health care worker, their vaccination status, all of these things are taken into account, and there's a matrix there.

Ultimately, it will be a decision of the healthcare setting and their local public health unit to decide on the actual nature of that. But it does open up that possibility because of the protection that comes from vaccination and because of the need for us to have our healthcare working during this period.

That's all taken into account. So, it's a very good document. It's been agreed by all states and territories, and it gives guidance very carefully and clearly to the local public health response.


On Western Australia, the message is very clear. Please do not wait. Do not hesitate. Because at some stage, our presumption is that everybody will be exposed to COVID, and the best protection is to ensure that you are vaccinated.

We're working with the West Australian Government. We're encouraging the West Australian people, and they're doing an excellent job. But there's no barrier to be vaccinated. There are vaccination places available across Western Australia. There are vaccine supplies. We're seeing record uptake around the country, and so the opportunity is there.

And I would simply say that if anybody thinks that they're immune simply because of borders, that is not the case, that our presumption is that at some point, everyone will be exposed or is at the risk of being exposed to COVID, and the best protection is to be vaccinated.

So, we'll continue to provide the supply, but we'll work with everybody to encourage them to take it up.

Now, I think there was Jono, is it? Behind?


Yeah, it is, Minister. Thanks very much.

Just in relation to Pfizer. We’ve seen the FDA in America receive a submission from Pfizer for five- to 11-year-olds. If that was successful, what timeframe would you like to see Pfizer make a similar submission to the TGA here, given you said you wanted it done at the same time?

And could we see primary school children vaccinated, fully, before the go back to school next year?


So, I’ve spoken with the head of Pfizer Australia today and encouraged Pfizer to submit their data and their application for childhood vaccination at the earliest possible time.

They’ve only just commenced that process with the FDA in America. But they’re already engaging with our Therapeutic Goods Administration, and I’m encouraging them to submit at the earliest possible time.

We have the supply. And as soon as there is an application and an approval, which will be done as a priority approval. And there is ATAGI advice. We’re in a position to provide those vaccinations, which is exactly what we did with 12- to 15-year-olds. What we’re able to do through general practice, through pharmacy, and through state and Commonwealth hubs, was just to keep the process going.

And we’re at 49 per cent of 12-to 15-year-olds some three and a half weeks in. And I think that’s a really, really powerful sign as to how quickly we can vaccinate a population group.

So the answer to the question is; as soon as there is an application and approval, and a recommendation from Pfizer, the TGA, and ATAGI respectively, we can commence immediately.

And next going across, I think, it’s Sarah, is it?


Stella from Ten. Thank you, Minister. Just could you clarify how many doses we would need to cover the eligible population of five- to 11-year-olds?

And just on the brain health study, if you could clarify, are you asking for living retired athletes to participate, or would you need athletes to donate their brain after their death?


So the first thing is in terms of the doses, you have approximately 315,000 kids in each year level. So we're looking here at six years or so; seven years all up. So we're looking at approximately 1.8 to 2 million first doses.

When we purchased, we purchased for whole of population double dose, so we have already available the full number of doses that are required. And I would hope that if it is approved, as many of that population of five to 11 inclusive do take it up.

So it'll be in the order of just over 2 million Australian children that will be eligible, and we would encourage as many as possible.

But I've got to say three and a half weeks, 49 per cent for the 12- to 15-year-olds, the parents have stepped up and the older kids and teens have stepped up. And so, there's full vaccine that is available.

In terms of the brain health, what that does is it's an evaluation of brain health of retired elite level athletes. So that's done in, the medical processes are done, obviously in a way which ensures that everybody is protected and cared for. And if there are those that have passed that wish to donate their brain tissue, then obviously that's a gift that they can give.

All right, next in the front.


Oh, me? When can the wider Australian population expect their booster shots? Is there a rough timeframe, Minister? And what will be our booster vaccine supply that we're getting?

And will they be adequate given those vaccines swap deals that we've done with other nations? And if I may, Professor Kelly, I'm just interested to know when immunity starts to wane in terms of the- after the second COVID shot? If you could give us a bit of information on that, that would be appreciated.


Sure. So we have 151 million doses available, and so we've covered, as we always do, with different contingencies.

We have 85 million Pfizer, we have 15 million additional Moderna, we have 51 million Novavax, which is the protein based vaccine that's currently completing its trials and is expected to submit applications both in the USA, Australia, and elsewhere in the coming weeks. It's ultimately up to the company.

So we have a very, very strong supply pipeline, enough to meet all Australian needs. And we had provisioned on the basis of were there to be not just one, but two boosters, which at this stage it appears more likely to be one, then we were covered for that circumstance.

And then in terms of when, we're expecting advice from ATAGI on general population booster programs before the end of the month, and we're in a position to commence that whatever time they recommend.


And with our supplies, will they be affected by those vaccines swap deals?




So in terms of waning immunity, this is something that we've been aware of for some months now. There's a lot of information that's coming from quite large studies from other countries that have obviously had many more people vaccinated because of the size of their population, at least that. So we do have information now about waning immunity.

But in relation to the effect on transmission, that's the thing that wanes first. And there is actually quite a number of clinical trials now going on, on different ways of giving vaccines, and so, to deal with immunity in the nose, for example, as part of that work.

What does remain very strong, and these, and just to be very clear, all three of the vaccines that are being used in Australia right now are very strong in protection against severe disease. And that continues.

There is a much lower waning of immunity over time for that effect, which is the most important effect of the vaccines, as compared with the transmission effect. So these are matters that will need to be taken into account in the way that ATAGI is looking at this, but certainly, over the three to six months, or up to eight months, we do feel that's probably the time when we need to consider whether a booster should be used for the general population, but we'll be guided by ATAGI’s way of looking at this.

And so, as the Minister said, we're expecting to have that formal advice by the end of the month. But I'm speaking very frequently, at least weekly with my ATAGI colleagues on this matter.


And so given that time frame that you just said, does that mean when the booster shots do get rolled out, that the people that got their COVID jabs first would be the first to get their booster shots? Is that how it would work?


Well, that's the advice we're looking for from ATAGI. But I guess the general principle is the longer since your first- your second dose, the more likely it is that that immunity will have waned to a certain extent. And so that timing will be an important consideration.


And so what we're expecting there, is that there will be a common time frame that after a certain period of time, you're invited to attend for a booster shot. Now we'll still await that advice on general population, but we're ready and we're prepared.

And interestingly, having passed the USA, Israel and now the EU in terms of first doses for general population, but having a much more recently vaccinated population, we're in a very strong situation in terms of national immunity. And as those second doses continue to rise.

Today, we've passed 60 per cent for second doses. We're at 80 per cent for first doses. Then that will provide more coverage and on a very, very contemporary basis. So the best possible protection.

If I'll go to the back of the room, please?


Yes. Thank you Minister. Nick Bonyhady from The Sydney Morning Herald here.

To Professor Kelly, can you mix and match booster shots? Do you need to get the same shot that you got your initial vaccine?

As I understand it, ATAGI is advising that an mRNA vaccine, whether Pfizer or Moderna is preferred to Vaxzevria, the AstraZeneca vaccine for the third dose. Why is that?

And then finally, to the minister, with the vaccine booster shot programme, there's been a huge disparity in vaccination rates between the developed world, where vaccination rates are generally very good, and the developing world, where they're very poor and deaths are higher. Is that something that Australia has taken into account in designing and interpreting the advice of the experts on booster shots?


Okay, I'll let Paul go first and I'll respond.


So thank you for the question. Yes, so the advice which is now public is exactly as you described. Firstly, I'd say that is that, definitely should not be interpreted, that AstraZeneca is not a good vaccine, it is a good vaccine.

But for the booster shots, the recommendation is to go for one or other of the mRNA vaccines as the booster. The preference is to go for a third dose of the one you had- the two you had first. So if you've had two Pfizer, the third one would be Pfizer.

No one's had two Modernas yet, so it would be likely be Pfizer. But if Pfizer is not available or unable to be taken, Moderna would be substituted. In certain circumstances, there may be a need to actually use AstraZeneca, for example, with some of the side effects of the second dose of an mRNA vaccine that would not be recommended to get a third one if that was the case.

So there is flexibility. But the general principle is mRNA vaccine as the third dose.


Yeah. And just in terms of support for developing nations. We're committed to 60 million doses to support developing nations. But we're also very aware that we have the capacity if there are additional doses available within Australia, to do exactly what we've done with AstraZeneca, and to provide those as well for other countries.

And I know us being able to supply directly to Fiji, for example, at a time when they were having a major outbreak but allowed them to achieve an exceptionally high vaccination rate very quickly. They basically had a very large number of Australia's AstraZeneca. We had sufficient for us. We immediately made sure that was provided to the region.

Fiji is one example, but it's been provided right around the region. So we'll continue to do that. And those vaccines that we've contracted are an insurance for Australians, but they're also an insurance policy for the region. And then, last of all, in the back corner, please.


Sorry, just if I could follow up, Professor Kelly. So I understand correctly, if you've had two doses of AstraZeneca, the booster shot is still preferred to be Moderna or Pfizer for that person. Is that correct?


That's correct.


Minister, Rob Scott here from 7 News. Can I just ask you, I know you said it's going to be about eight months when you get your booster after you've had your last shot. Do you think this will become like a flu shot where we have it every year? Or is it still too far away to know that?

And our frontline health care workers are going to be amongst the first seeing as they were in 1A along with immunocompromised people to get a booster?


Sure. So look, two things here. I'm not putting a timeframe on the booster. That will be very much a medical decision and guidance, and we'll follow that guidance as we've done.

So that's completely something which ATAGI will advise on, and they'll look at the international data, the domestic data and the product information. The second thing is, how we roll out the boosters will follow time. So it's a time based programme, so those that had their earliest vaccinations will be those that have access.

But there's no issue of supply right now. There's supply right around the nation for those that wish to be vaccinated, as you've seen with the three highest day period, which has just been completed.

So the highest three-day period for vaccination in the entire programme, even though we're above 80 per cent first dose, is the last three days.

So that says that there's both supply and demand, and we've got even greater supply going forward. So there's enough vaccine, there's enough vaccine for every Australian to have first and second doses, and there's enough vaccine for every Australian as they come due for boosters to have that.

In terms of subsequent doses, whether it becomes an annual situation, that'll be a global medical question, and Paul is probably better placed to judge that. But if that's the medical advice, we're prepared to implement it.



So at this stage, it looks likely a third dose is all we know about. Remember that we're only a year, less than a year into this endeavour right across the world. So at the moment, it appears the third dose will be enough, but we’ll just need to see.

One of the issues that's come up in previously in relation to this is the effect of other variants of concern. To the previous question, it's very important that we do support the whole world in this global pandemic because that's where variants of concern will come.

We have seen some of the variants that have developed so far, including the Delta, well, it does partially affect the vaccine efficacy, but not to a great extent. So we're always looking to see whether that may happen in the future, and that may be something that leads to further boosters.

But at this stage, all of the variants that are circulating in the world, the vaccines that we have in Australia do work very, very effectively to stop both severe disease and transmission of the virus. And so a third dose is likely, at this stage, to be the last dose so we have to do.




It's quite possible that's the case. We've got that, we know a lot about vaccines in other viruses. This is the very first virus that we've had a vaccine for coronavirus. But hepatitis virus, for example, two or three doses is likely to give lifelong immunity. And that's what we hope for with these.

But it's early days and we're only less than a year in. So we need to follow up people and to see how that develops over time.


In Israel, it doesn't qualify you as fully vaccinated unless you've had three shots. Do you think that'll become the case here?


So at this stage, two doses qualifies you for anything that will depend on being fully vaccinated. And that's the case even with the immunocompromised announcement today. But that's something we'll see over time, but at this stage, two doses is fully vaccinated.

A third dose will be a booster to assist into the future, subject to ATAGI advice, as we've discussed.


Right. Well, thank you, everybody, and I do want to finish where I started just by saying that there are important reasons for hope today, to see a million doses in the last three days, a record three-day period. Australia passing the 80 per cent first and 60 per cent second combination.

And when we see what's happening in New South Wales, with cases reducing significantly from 1500 a day, having more than halved, we see the pathway forwards, that vaccines save lives and protect lives.

And so if you haven't been vaccinated, please come forward. If you are due for your second dose, please come forward.

Take care, everybody. Thank you very much.

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