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Minister Hunt's Press Conference in Melbourne on 4 November 2021 on Government funding for WEHI, Vaccine rollout and booster shots

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's Press Conference in Melbourne on 4 November 2021 on Government funding for WEHI, Vaccine rollout and booster shots.

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

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Okay. So, welcome everyone, and it's really a great pleasure to welcome Minister Hunt and Professor Homer to WEHI. It's been almost a year since Minister Hunt was here last time.

The Australian Government funding through the NHMRC that Minister Hunt is announcing today is essential to support the work and careers of scientists at WEHI and other MRIs and I would like to thank the Minister and the Government and the NHMRC for this very important support.

So, these grants enable MRIs such as WEHI to not only do the basic research so essential for the development of ideas and discoveries, but also to translate these ideas into new medicines for the treatment of Australians.

When we looked at the successful new ideas grants that are being announced here today from WEHI, it was very pleasing to see that there are a significant number of female principal investigators funded in this round of applications. Out of a total of nine funded at WEHI, six have female CIAs, which is absolutely fantastic.

And also, it's really pleasing to see that our post-doctoral scientists who are at the earlier stages of their career at WEHI have also been successfully funded in this grant round. And this support is just so important for these younger scientists to not only progress their careers, but also to develop their ideas and ultimately to have an impact on health in the community.

So, I'd really like to congratulate the scientists around Australia who are funded in this round of NHMRC New Ideas grants. And also, my commiserations to those who weren't funded, a lot of hard work and dedication has been put into both successful and unsuccessful grants and I'd like to acknowledge that effort.

So, thank you, Minister, for the announcement today at WEHI and to the Australian Government for its ongoing support to medical research.

Thank you.


Thanks very much to Professor Alan Cowman, the deputy director here at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, to Professor Caroline Homer, the new Chair of the National Health and Medical Research Council from the Burnet Institute, an expert in nursing and midwifery.

And it's great, Caroline, to have you on board and to accept that role and then to these amazing researchers here at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. These are the sort of best and brightest emerging minds, established minds, people that are saving lives and protecting lives, and today is about saving lives and protecting lives.

And on that note, I want to begin by just acknowledging the absolute joy and relief around the country at the finding of Cleo Smith, safe and well.

Our police have done an amazing job. And to Cleo and her family, we're thrilled for you, and to our police in Western Australia and to all of those who've assisted in any way, shape and form. Thank you. Thank you for everything you've done.

But today is about our researchers and, you know, in the last 20 months, we've seen the impact and ravages of COVID. And we've understood, perhaps more than ever, how important the work of our medical researchers are, our doctors, our nurses, our pharmacists, our pathologists, in saving lives and protecting lives.

And so I'm delighted to be here at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, a storeyed history dating back through great names like Sir Macfarlane Burnet and Sir Gustav Nossal, and then incredible people such as Dr Ashley Davey that we've met today, Dr Melinda Hardy that we met today, who are leading research into cancer treatments and gluten treatments for people who suffer from gluten intolerance.

So, all the different parts, that tradition is being carried on here, and I'm delighted to announce as part of the National Health and Medical Research Council Ideas grants, 248 grants, $239 million, supporting projects such as Ashley Davies project with Dr Melissa Call of breakthrough new cancer treatment, CAR-T cellular immunotherapy, and they're focusing on leukaemia and lymphoma, but then transferring this treatment for the first time to brain cancer and blood cancer.

A new treatment for glioblastoma with an agonisingly low survival rate, which can potentially be elevated, trialled here in Melbourne across the road in a partnership between WEHI and Peter MacCallum to actually treat patients and save their lives.

The work of Dr Melinda Hardy and her team. There are 400,000 Australians with coeliac disease, a particular form of gluten intolerance. Up to 15 per cent of Australians have broad forms of gluten intolerance, so this is a widespread disease. It may not get the attention it deserves, but it's getting the funding it deserves.

And so, these grants are long-term grants, four years, to support our best and brightest researchers, people such as we see over here at WEHI who've committed their careers to saving lives and protecting lives. And Caroline, as the new Head of the NHMRC, is an incredible medical leader and advocate for medical research.

Just beyond all of this, I want to note the progress in relation to the vaccine rollout. We passed 36 million Australians who have been vaccinated- or 36 million vaccinations around the country. What that means is another 182,000 in the last 24 hours.

We're at 36.2 million vaccinations and we're at 88.9 per cent of Australians, an extraordinary 88.9 per cent of Australians, that have had a first dose and 79.1 per cent of Australians that have had a second dose.

We will pass the double dosed 80 per cent rate in the coming few days, and that's a tribute to all of our researchers, all of our nurses, our doctors, our health professionals around the country. And to put a very bright note at the end of all of this, we've reached an extraordinary 99.4 per cent first dose for over-70s.

So, if you haven't been vaccinated, join the club. Come and protect yourself. And if you've had a first dose and you're due for your second, please come forward. And if you're due for a booster, join the more than 100,000 Australians that in just a very short period have had their booster. So, it's positive news on many fronts.

And with that, I'm delighted to introduce for the first time with me as the new National Chair of the National Health and Medical Research Council, Professor Caroline Homer. Caroline.


Thank you, Minister, and what a pleasure it is. Thank you, Alan, for hosting this important event today.

It's very exciting to be able to announce these grants. Ideas grants are the second largest amount of money distributed by the NHMRC and essential for research, but more importantly, as the Minister has said, essential for the health of Australians.

And this work, the funds will support researchers, so hundreds of young researchers, particularly around the country, and we've had the privilege this morning of meeting two of them who are doing just such important work. And these grants will now fund them for the next four to five years and really set them on their careers to make an enormous contribution to the health of Australians.

It's a huge privilege to chair the NHMRC Council, and I know that we have an incredible group of people and we're going to work really hard for you, Minister, over the next three years to ensure that NHMRC is strong and vibrant and resilient.

And if I can just end on the happy note about the vaccines. Absolutely delighted with the vaccine numbers, but I'm going to put a little call out there for pregnant women.

So at the moment, while we have fantastic vaccination rates in many groups, pregnant women – and I'm a midwife, so this is an area very close to my heart – pregnant women are not getting vaccinated as the numbers that we would like to see.

We have pregnant women in hospital in Victoria and in New South Wales, and some of them are very sick. And we know that if you get vaccinated when you're pregnant, you will not get sick of COVID if you catch the infection.

So, to all the pregnant women out there, please go and get vaccinated. It's absolutely critical not only for you, but also for your baby and for your family.

Thanks very much.


Thanks very much to Caroline and a very important message. I'll start with Claire on the phone, if that's alright, please.

Oh, hang on. Sorry, I'll just- sorry. If you could just start again, please, Claire.


Thanks, Minister. Just on the pandemic, tomorrow national cabinet meets for the first time in a month, the first time since most of the eastern states have come out of lockdown. What are the issues that you think are still to be resolved in terms of standardising the way that states move to live with COVID?

What do you expect are some of the issues that might still be hashed out in terms of opening of borders or how we deal with the reopening?

And also, has there been any more movement in Pfizer submitting documents necessary for the approvals of 5 to 11-year-olds to get the vaccination?


Sure. So look, I'll start with the vaccination program if that's alright. So, we've seen an emergency approval in the United States with regards to 5 to 11-year-olds, which we welcome.

Pfizer has started the process of an application in Australia, and the Therapeutic Goods Administration will work through that. That's our national medical regulator. They will work through that. They will consider all of the data. They will work as quickly as possible.

And as soon as they're ready, we're ready, as soon as the medical regulator is ready and they've done all of the work to ensure that it's safe and effective, we have the doses; we have the distribution system.

And exactly as we did with 12 to 15-year-olds - we moved straight on to 12 to 15-year-olds, I think, at about 68.5 per cent vaccination rate - exactly as we've done with boosters, with over 100,000 people who've already commenced before the formal program begins, which I think is fantastic news.

States, GPs, aged care facilities, they're all stepping in, and we're ready to commence as soon as the TGA has completed its assessment and then obviously ATAGI.

Now, in terms of national cabinet, I think the critical thing is just continuing to work together as a nation to open up safely and therefore to remain safely open.

What we've seen in New South Wales and Victoria and the ACT is very good progress. The combination of vaccines and of public health and social measures has worked very well, and we've been able to begin that process of opening up.

Families being reunited, people being brought together, weddings and funerals, and just grandparents meeting their beautiful little grandchildren for the first time. This is the real stuff of life that's been facilitated by the vaccines and therefore the opening up.

So, tomorrow we’ll obviously review that progress, but I have to say the progress has been good. The hospital systems in New South Wales and Victoria have really, I have to say, performed magnificently.

And to everybody involved, our doctors and our nurses, our hospital administrators. Doesn’t matter where you are in that hospital system, you have our thanks. So that’s the critical thing. Just to continue to review the progress to opening up, and to look for those milestones.



Thanks Minister. On the hospital systems topic, there’s a health ministers meeting today and again with national cabinet tomorrow, the states and territories and also peak medical bodies are continuing to talk about their concerns with hospital capacity to deal with COVID, and non-COVID patients.

Is that being discussed at the health ministers meeting today, and are we likely to see the modelling on health system capacity tomorrow?

And just to follow up on Claire’s question, has the TGA got all the Pfizer data on time to opening up


Yeah, sure. So they’ve received the basic data, and it would be up to Pfizer to indicate whether there’s additional data.

My understanding is that it’s an ongoing process of submission as we see more from around the world. That’s one of the fortunate positions we’re in, that we’re now one of the most highly vaccinated societies, one of the most recently vaccinated societies, and after Israel, one of the first countries in the world to have begun the booster program.

So, the TGA will engage in what I call continuous review of the data so, it’s not one particular provision of data, it’s continuous review as there’s more information. They’ll work through it carefully, safely, and as expeditiously as possible. And once they’re ready, we’re ready to proceed.

In terms of hospitals, I think probably the strongest statements are those of Kerry Chant, Brett Sutton and Jeannette Young, who have all reaffirmed their strong, clear belief in the capacity of their own hospital systems. I think this is a really important thing as the public health leaders in their respective states, the fact that they have given that evidence and advice.

And the proof of that has been in the way these hospital systems have responded. They’ve been responding for 20 months. We’ve invested $6.6 billion in the national partnership agreement with the states and territories to support them. They’ve done their preparatory work, and faced with the challenge, they’ve I think come through in an outstanding fashion.

It hasn’t been easy. COVID is not easy. But our hospitals have risen, our medical staff have risen. And frankly, Australians have risen. You know, of all the countries in the world, here we are with one of the lowest rates of loss of life, one of the three lowest rates in the OECD. One of the highest rates of vaccination and one of the strongest economic recoveries.

So, we couldn’t have done that without protecting our hospitals. But that’s what we’ve been able to do.

And Jane, I’m not sure if.


Sorry Minister, are we going to see some modelling tomorrow?


That's entirely a matter for national cabinet. So, from a Commonwealth perspective, there are no barriers.

So that's just simply a decision that's a collective one. But from our perspective, our intention has always been that if national cabinet approves it, we would certainly make it available.

Jane? I'm not sure if Jane's on the line.


Hi Minister, yes, I’m on the line.


Jane’s on the line.


Just two questions. Firstly, on the booster. Has Moderna yet put in an application to be part of the booster program? And has it been your expectation that it's a one off booster shot or will it become like the flu vaccine on an annual basis?

And my second question is just on the hospital capacity. Has Western Australia's Health Minister also stated their belief that the hospital system is ready, because a little while ago, Brendan Murphy suggested that more work needed to be done in the west.


Sure. So look, we have confidence in all of the states and territories. I'll let them speak for themselves. But they had certainly indicated that they'd been working very hard to prepare their hospital system, and I would be very surprised if they hadn't completed that work.

But all our evidence and advice is that they have. But I'll let them speak for themselves. And then the second thing here is in relation to the boosters.




Yep. So with regards to the boosters, Moderna is due to make an application in the coming weeks. They've indicated to us late last week that they are preparing to submit, and they indicated that publicly. So we're very excited and looking forward to the final materials being fully in place.

And again, the TGA, which has just done an amazing job, will work through that. And when they're ready, when they've done the assessment, they've made findings and presuming that they find it to be safe and effective, then that will be added to the list of boosters.

And what we've done in the meantime is we've made Pfizer available to pharmacies – I was literally just dropping into a pharmacy yesterday, and they said they were ordering and they would be dispensing Pfizer. And we're making Moderna available in the GP's. And so they'll work out amongst them, which of them wish to add those. But now you have multiple options for multiple vaccines in multiple sites.

As I say, the booster program is ahead of expectations, and I think that's a really good thing. It's ahead of expectations. More people have had their boosters earlier than our best possible expectations, so Australians have stepped forward and they're doing their bit.

But we're very close to that 80 per cent double dose mark. We won't stop there. But I want to say to Australians, the next 48 hours, please keep coming forwards. We'd like you to be the person that tips us over the 80 per cent double dosed mark.

Thank you everybody and take care.



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