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Minister Hunt's Press Conference on 28 November 2021 about acute myeloid leukaemia treatment -Venetoclax and the COVID-19 Omicron variant

Read the transcript of Minister Hunt's Press Conference in Melbourne on 28 November 2021 on acute myeloid leukaemia treatment -Venetoclax and the COVID-19 Omicron variant.

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

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DR TRISH WALKER: Good morning everyone, thank you for coming. Welcome to Peninsula Private Hospital, part of the Ramsey Group. We’re here on the Mornington Peninsula, it’s really a beautiful, lovely day to come out.

Here at Peninsula Private Hospital, it’s a 348 bed hospital, with a major focus on cancer services. We run a very large haematology and oncology service, focussed on providing treatment options for our local residents.

We have a dedicated inpatient ward, chemotherapy day unit, and soon-to-open radiotherapy service. We have a clinical trial unit, because we like to offer cutting edge technology available to our patients, locally.

We’re very, very pleased to be here this morning. We’re here to talk about bringing a new drug, Venetoclax, onto the PBS. We’ve had access to this drug in Australia for many years, as Australia has been at the forefront of developing this drug. Running clinical trials and then having access to this drug on the PBS represents a major milestone in treatment options for our patients. Especially for patients to be able to be treated locally.

I’d like to thank and introduce Minister Greg Hunt, who will give us further announcements on this development.

GREG HUNT: Thanks very much to Dr Trish Walker, who is the Head of Oncology here at Peninsula Private, to Dr Andrew Wei. Professor Wei is one of the original developers, who, through his work at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, helped make Venetoclax a worldwide reality, and an Australian medical triumph.

To thank Chris Tanti, from the Leukaemia Foundation. Michelle Henderson, the CEO here at Peninsula Private. And Sharn Coombes, the Liberal Candidate for Dunkley, who represents this area, and significantly, her own family has been affected by blood cancer, and she’s very generously agreed to share some of that story.

In acknowledging being here at Peninsula Private, one of the most important things in the COVID journey has been maintaining the capacity of both our public and private hospitals through the private hospitals partnership. That brought 57,000 nurses, over 100,000 staff into partnership.

And Trish was telling me that cardiology from Frankston Public Hospital, has been carried out here at Peninsula Private. So, the whole story of COVID-19 has been about Australians stepping up and doing things as they’ve never done before in a way to support each other. And that private hospitals partnership with the public hospitals is ongoing right here, right now.

Now, the other thing that’s been vital during the course of the pandemic, is to keep our health services going. And the listing of new medicines is a fundamental part of that. We’ve now listed over 2,800 [sic] 5,800 medicines over the course of our time in government And that’s just been a vitally important service to Australians.

One particular condition is leukaemia, and in particular acute myeloid leukaemia. We know that there are over 5,000 Australians that can be affected by leukaemia in any one year, and that acute myeloid leukaemia can have over 1,100 Australians. And the survival rate is approximately, over five years, just a quarter of those who are diagnosed. So new treatments and better treatments are fundamentally important.

Today I am delighted to announce that from December 1, from Wednesday, Venetoclax, an Australian development, of which Andrew Wei, who’s here today, played such an important part, will be available on the PBS for acute myeloid leukaemia.

It’s estimated that there’ll be about 340 patients whose particular conditions will be met by Venetoclax but all those that meet the requirements, will be provided. And instead of $88,000 a year, it will be as little as just $6.60 per script for those on conventional scripts.

And so, that’s a fundamental difference between $88,000 and $6.60. It means for so many Australians, they will have access to a life extending, life changing medicine which would otherwise have never have been within reach.

At the same time, the work in relation to COVID-19 is ongoing. The vaccinations have continued. We’re now at almost 39.1 million vaccinations in Australia. In particular, we’re at 92.3 per cent of first doses, 86.7 per cent of second doses, and importantly, South Australia has joined the club of states and territories that are now 80 per cent double dosed. Well done South Australia and thank you to everybody. But please keep coming forward.

In relation to the Omicron variant, the Prime Minister and myself were briefed by Professor Paul Kelly and Professor Brendan Murphy again this morning. The tasking that we have put, is for the Chief Health Officer to continue to meet daily with state and territory counterparts.

The Prime Minister and myself have requested Professor Kelly to continue to meet daily with state and territory counterparts to examine the nature of the variant, all of the international evidence and all of the domestic requirements. And we won't hesitate if more is needed to take those steps.

As we did with our first briefing on Friday. We foreshadowed that if more was needed we would take steps and overnight international evidence came in and we took immediate steps yesterday. And we’ll continue to do that to protect Australians.

Yesterday, there were over 3,800 passengers who arrived in Australia and the relevant public health orders. And 54 were from southern Africa, had been there and identified in the previous 14 days across the nine countries.

And what we are pleased to see is that all of the orders that were issued yesterday have been put in place, actions are being taken, Border Force is implementing, the states and territory and public health units are supporting. And so I want to thank everybody for their part in that work.

What I’ll do now though, is I’d like to invite Professor Andrew Wei from the Alfred Hospital, but one of the developers of Venetoclax. Then Chris Tanti from the Leukaemia Foundation, and Sharn Coombes to talk about her family's story. And then after that, we’ll be happy to take questions. Thank you.

PROFESSOR ANDREW WEI: Acute myeloid leukaemia is a very devastating blood cancer which can rapidly overwhelm bone marrow without effective treatment.

This new drug, which Minister Hunt has told us will be available December 1, works by tricking the leukemic cells to activate a self-destruct button which can result in the death of billions of leukemic cells within a few hours.

In combination with low dose chemotherapy, two-thirds of patients will now have their bone marrow cleared of leukaemia within just a few weeks.

This new discovery and this new drug builds on three decades of research, which includes seminal discoveries by research scientists here in Australia, at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, and by clinicians and physicians around the world who have conducted the clinical trials.

So, we’re very pleased to have this new drug available to older patients with AML to offer a new treatment for this very difficult condition.

CHRIS TANTI: This is a fantastic opportunity for people who continue to live with blood cancer.

And we know that $88,000 for most of us is out of reach. And so, having affordable treatment in this space is important. But the Government continues to help us with the national taskforce, the blood cancer taskforce. And we have a public-private arrangement around the continued funding to optimise care for people living with blood cancer.

So, this is an important announcement but there are many more pieces to this puzzle that we and the Government continue to work on.

SHARN COOMBES: Thank you, Minister. As the Health Minister said, this is an important announcement for me personally.

First of all, I’m very pleased that the Morrison Government is continuing to add such treatments to the PBS, it’s very important. And for me personally, as I said, my great-grandmother passed away from leukaemia, but my mother was recently diagnosed with polycythemia vera, which is known as PV, which can progress into AML.

So, for me, my mother would never be able to afford $88,000 for a treatment, like many Australians, most Australian. It’s a very large amount of money. And to think that someone’s life holds in the balance because of money is never, never acceptable.

So in this way, I’m very pleased that this treatment is now going onto the PBS. Which meant that should my mother’s condition progress this will be available to her at this price. And that means a lot to me and my family.

So today, I’m very pleased that this announcement is being made and for the Leukaemia Foundation, and I’d just like to thank those innovators, like the Professor, who continue to do this important work.

GREG HUNT: Happy to take questions. If I may, I’ll start with those that are on the phone, and beyond that we’ll come to those that are here. So, Tom?

JOURNALIST: Just a quick query on Omicron, sort of in three parts.

Firstly, any update on whether the COVID-positive arrivals from southern Africa have the Omicron variant?

Secondly, there are reports that CMOs that are pushing for a full suspension of international arrivals. Is that something that you would consider should (INAUDIBLE) worsen?

And just lastly, the South African Medical Association have said this morning it appears the variant (INAUDIBLE) mild symptoms. Is that something you were briefed on this morning?

GREG HUNT: Sure, so, three questions there from Tom. The first is in relation to the COVID-positive cases in Australia that have been in Southern Africa. There’s one in the Northern Territory, two that have arrived in New South Wales.

At this stage all are confirmed as positive, none are confirmed as Omicron. The DNA sequencing is being carried out by the state and territory Public Health Units. We don’t have any advice on that yet.

These processes, the sequencing can take a little bit of time, but both Public Health Units are doing their work. So, as they know, they will release the details both to the Federal Government and to the public. We’ll just wait on that, but what I’m pleased at is that we’ve taken all of the measures.

Secondly, our health advice was to take strong, clear measures which are in line, and indeed at the forefront of global action, and I’m pleased that we’ve taken the action. But as I’ve said on Friday, as information is provided, as medical advice develops, if more measures are needed, we will not hesitate.

We took a big step yesterday to block flights from nine countries to prevent the arrival of non-Australian citizens or residents from nine countries and to require the quarantine for 14 days for people who have been in those nine countries, was a significant imposition, it is a significant hardship, but it was an important step forward.

Then in relation to the impact of the disease itself, the nature of the variant and the mutation, I’ve requested Paul Kelly to work as Chief Medical Officer of Australia on a daily basis with state and territory counterparts and with the research community both in Australia and internationally.

At this stage the preliminary advice, which of course is subject to emerging evidence, is that we have seen no signs that this is a more dangerous disease in terms of its impact on hospitalisations, serious illness or loss of life.

At this stage we have seen no signs in relation to its resistance to vaccines. But constant updating of medical advice has been what we’ve done throughout the pandemic and response to that has been what we’ve done and what we’ll continue to do.


JOURNALIST: Thanks Minister. Continuing on the Omicron variant. As much as we don’t know about it, it does seem, from what you’ve said there’s no evidence, in the worst case, that it is making people more sick more often.

Are you open to developing some kind of consistent way of dealing with variants that may emerge in the coming years? Having a system in place that Australians can be confident and understand will be activated and include certain precautions every time we identify a new variant? Or do Australians have to just live with this constant uncertainty as these variants emerge?

And just on that as well, overseas, there are discussions about bringing forward the time between the second dose and a booster. Is that something Australia might be considering in response to this variant?

GREG HUNT: Sure. So, in relation to variants, I think Professor Kelly pointed out yesterday that there’d been 13 principal variants of concern, and of those it’s only a very small number that have required or needed changes.

So what we have in place, actually, is that system already. And that system is we have the National Incident Centre, which coordinates the responses through the leadership of the Chief Medical Officer and the AHPPC and what’s called the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia or the CDNA. So, those mechanisms are immediately brought into place to look at the risk, to look at the nature.

Other variants have not required additional responses, but obviously the Delta variant did. We paused flights from India to Australia, and there were some who disagreed with that at the time. I seem to remember, sadly, that the Opposition raised some significant questions.

We were receiving 14 per cent of positives on the flights into Howard Springs at the highest level, and then by pausing for two weeks, by updating the measures for pre-departure, we were able to reduce to half a per cent the positive cases on arrival.

So the answer is: that system is established through the National Incident Centre, the AHPPC and the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia. And they examine emerging variants and, I think, 13 major variants, and of those only a very small number have required a significant response: the UK, the Delta and now the Omicron.

Now there’s one other thing, I think, Claire, I apologise.

JOURNALIST: The timeline for boosters, bringing that forward.

GREG HUNT: Yeah, so in terms of boosters, no change in the advice, but as ever we continue to focus on the advice. I would strongly urge everyone to follow the advice of the senior medical professionals who have guided Australia.

There are many voices. There are many people who will have opinions, but ATAGI, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, the TGA, and the Chief Medical Officer, and the team at the National Incident Centre are, I believe, world leading, outstanding professionals who have kept Australia safe.

And where they provide new advice, we will follow that advice. But the CMO has been tasked with leading a daily review for the time being of all evidence relating to the emergence of the Omicron variant, and if more is needed, more will be done.

I’ll come to those here at the event. Channel 7, please?


GREG HUNT: So, that’s in the hands of the state public health units. The state Chief Health Officers are meeting at our request on a daily basis with the Commonwealth. So Victoria, for example, has said they will review that after three days, and so that’s the current process.

I do apologise that this does come with some uncertainty for people. That is the nature and challenge, but to step back for a second. Of all the countries in the world, we now have one of the highest vaccination rates, we have one of the most recently vaccinated populations, and after Israel, we were- we are one of the first countries in the world to have a whole of nation booster program.

And indeed, as of today we’re now at over 410,000 boosters. And so what we’re seeing is that Australians are coming forward. And the message is the best protection is vaccination. So if you haven’t had your first dose, please come forward. If you’re due for your second dose, please come forward. And if you are due for your booster, please come forward.

JOURNALIST: There have been some calls from some medical experts to perhaps move those booster shots forward from six months to (INAUDIBLE) is that something that the Government will consider?

GREG HUNT: We’ll continue to follow the medical advice, but the medical advisors that have guided Australia throughout, the TGA, the Australia Health Protection Principal Committee which is the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer and the state Chief Health Officers, and the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation.

There were people 18 months ago who were predicting that Australia would follow the path of Italy just within a matter of weeks, that our hospitals would overwhelmed, that we wouldn’t have the ICU capacity, and some of those are making the same predictions again. I think it’s important to review that which people who are making calls now had previously said.

There were people who predicted Australia would have 300,000 deaths who’ve been given wide spread publicity. I think it’s important to review the credentials of the medical experts.

The finest medical experts in the country are those that have guided Australia, the TGA, the Chief Health and Medical Officers of Australia, and the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. We’ll continue to follow their advice because it’s kept Australia safe.

My final message to Australians is we know how to do this. We’ve done this. We have one of the lowest rates of loss of life of anywhere in the world. We have one of the highest vaccination rates, and we have one of the most recently vaccinated populations.

We’re in one of the strongest positions of any nation. And with hospitals such as Peninsula Private, Frankston Public, which has done such an amazing job in terms of providing COVID support. We have one of the strongest and best prepared hospital systems in the world.

So there are challenges and there are adaptations, but nobody in my judgement anywhere in the world is better prepared than Australia.

I thank you. And to those patients who from the 1 December will have access to a new treatment for acute myeloid leukaemia with Venetoclax, this is an important day. Take care, everybody. Thank you.


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