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Press Conference in Canberra with Minister Hunt, Professor Brendan Murphy in Canberra on 13 May 2021with an update on the vaccination

Read the transcript of the press conference with Minister Hunt, Professor Brendan Murphy in Canberra on 13 May 2021with an update on the vaccination.

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

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Good morning everybody. I’m joined by Professor Brendan Murphy, amongst other things, the head of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Group on Vaccines.

And in accordance with the advice of the scientific and technical advisory group on vaccines, I’m pleased to be able to announce that Australia has completed a contract with Moderna for the purchase of 25 million mRNA vaccines.

These vaccines would be provided on the basis of up to 10 million during the latter part of 2021 and 15 million during 2022.

They serve two purposes: firstly, as a reserve supply for this year if other elements of the supply chain were to run into any challenges. Secondly, they are our foundation of a booster and variant strategy.

Moderna is, on the advice that we have, the most advanced of the vaccine products with relation to the capacity to adapt to booster or variant requirements.

Now, we don't know everything that is going to occur in this pandemic, but our goal has been to prepare for everything that is possible, and that’s been our mantra since I think January the 21st last year, Brendan, when he signed in to being the declaration of a disease of human pandemic potential.

And then the decision on the 1st of February last year and then all of the steps we’ve taken when we laid out a plan where we said, we’re not immune, but we are prepared. And that’s what we’ve done throughout.

And that’s why when you look at a world of up to 800,000 cases a day at the moment, hopefully just beginning to come down on the latest couple of days of figures, that Australia with most days, 83 days this year, zero case of community transmission.

You’ve had a number of initial cases recently and yet all have been contained. So all of those elements have been in play and all of those elements of protection.

So, today is the next stage of future proofing and of preparing for the future. The agreement with Moderna, which is focused primarily on our ability for 2022 to have a booster and variant strategy, but it reinforces our ability to meet our objectives this year.

The second element of it is Christian Porter will shortly announce the commencement of an approach to market, which was contained within the Budget, for mRNA production in Australia.

And then, thirdly, as Moderna has noted in it notification under it’s requirements to market in the United States, they are in active discussions with the Australian government as to the possibility of production in Australia of their own Moderna mRNA vaccine.

So three elements today: 25 million doses with a focus on the booster and variant strategy. Secondly, we will shortly, within the course of the coming 10 days, open an approach to market, which Christian Porter will lead for mRNA production in Australia. And thirdly, the acknowledgement that we are already in active discussions with Moderna as a possible candidate under that approach to market.

And our hope is that we will have at least one, if not more than one, manufacturing operation in Australia. I won't make a guarantee on that, but I am confident that over the future period, we will have mRNA production in Australia.

Professor Murphy?


Thanks, Minister. So this purchase today is in accordance with the scientific and technical advisory group strategy, which is one of significant redundancy and significant diversification in vaccines.

So whilst we know we have more than enough vaccine already ordered to cover our primary vaccination program this year, this provides some additional redundancy, which we’ve always sought.

It also provides, as Minister Hunt said, the capacity now for us to develop a strategy for following years where boosters and variant cover may be required.

The evidence, as you all well know, is that this virus has shown some variants over the course of the last year, and whilst we think all of the vaccines are likely to be highly effective at preventing severe disease even with variants, even the vaccines we’re rolling out now, we do need to be prepared and be in a position where if we need boosters against variants or different strains of the virus, we are in a position to have those orders in place and cover it.

Moderna vaccine, like the Pfizer vaccine, like the AstraZeneca vaccine, and like the Novavax vaccine, which we’ll be getting later this year, is a highly effective vaccine in clinical trials. Highly effective at preventing severe disease and likely to be very effective at preventing transmission.

So this is an exciting development. It doesn't change our current strategy, which is to continue to roll out the Pfizer and the AstraZeneca. These are the two vaccines that we have at the moment, and that the Australian population is doing well at taking them up and our program is rolling out smoothly at the moment.

Thank you, Minister.


We’ll take questions.


The Prime Minister this morning said that it was likely that these extra Moderna doses would primarily be used for the under-50 cohort. Can you confirm it will solely be used for this age cohort?

And just for you, Professor Murphy, are you able to just provide some more details about the ability of these booster shots to respond to COVID variants?


Sure. Do you want to start with the boosters and I’ll do the rest?


Sure. We don't know yet. Moderna are probably the most advanced in developing booster vaccines. What we do know is that the TGA has agreed that they won't need to do clinical trials to prove that.

So, if the companies can show that the new vaccines produce antibodies in a simple, small trial that they’ll be prepared to register them.

We won't really know how effective they are in the clinical world until they’re rolled out in clinical use, which is what we see with flu every year.


So just in terms of the availability, as we go forward, we want to make sure that we’ve got enough to ensure that we have the under-50s and the over-50s each provision.

AstraZeneca at the moment, clearly we have enough for the over-50s. If our Pfizer vaccine follows through with the contracted amounts of 40 million, then we’ll have enough for all Australians to have access to mRNA irrespective of the age.

And we have to say, every indication is that Pfizer will meet all of its contractual obligations. They’ve done so in terms of volumes, timeframes pretty much perfectly so far.

And we understand their production capabilities are very strong and then this provides an additional back-up if required during the course of the last part of 2021, just so as we have the full understanding we have the potential for 1 million late in Q3, another 9 million in Q4, which matches at the same time as Pfizer, and then 15 million next year.

It may be that if Pfizer is covering everything, that all of this could be used for booster and variants.

So we’ve got flexibility over as a back-up for firstly the under-50s, but the potential if we have- is likely to be the case enough vaccines to cover all of that, then that would be available to everybody.



So you just said that we will have enough Pfizer to cover most of the population, and now we’ve got this Moderna which you obviously want to use as boosters, but there are lots of people who are still hesitant about AstraZeneca and will potentially delay getting vaccinated so they can get one of these mRNA shots later in the year.

Do you think that’s a concern?


We do know there is hesitancy and I think it’s very important to acknowledge this. I think Alison McMillan, as Chief Nursing and Midwifery Officer, spoke very eloquently to this.

An acknowledgement that around the world, there are those who are hesitant. Our medical advice remains very, very clear and I’ll let Brendan speak to this.

Our medical advice remains that we want to encourage as many people as possible to be vaccinated as early as possible. And we have the dual-track strategy now, where the Pfizer that we have available is for those that are under-50, other than in the circumstances set out by the National Cabinet.

The AstraZeneca is for those over-50 and the full over-50 program begins on Monday, but it’s already had an initial start and in particular, we want the over-70s to be vaccinated as early as possible.

And Brendan, I’ll let you address both the safety, but also the reason for early vaccination.


Sure. So, as you all know, the world is still very actively full of COVID and we are always at risk of further outbreaks in Australia. That’s inevitable, given the scale of COVID around the world, even though hotel quarantine has worked incredibly well, there will continue to be breaches. And there’s always a risk of outbreak.

So, for people over 50, and the older you get, the more- the benefit-risk ratio is so clearly in favour of vaccination. This issue with AstraZeneca - the clot issue - is very, very rare.

And most people do well and we’ve picked it up early now and we think, and our medical advice is, that the risk benefit is clearly in favour of the benefit of vaccination over-50 and particularly those over-70.

And our over-70s are turning up to be vaccinated more than a third, about a third of them have been vaccinated already. I’ve had my AstraZeneca – I’m not over 70, but I’ve had it and I’m lining up for my second dose in three weeks’ time and I’m very confident with that.

So, what we’re saying, particularly to our older Australians, you need protection. You are the ones who are at risk of getting severe COVID. Please go out and get vaccinated.


So, I’ll start with Josh and then work my way around and then come back.


Thanks Minister. Just to follow up on Rachel's question, you said that Moderna would be a reserve supply for this year. Do you actually expect any Australians to receive a Moderna shot this year? For instance, as Rachel said, maybe someone who would have otherwise have received AstraZeneca?

And I guess the other obvious question would be why wasn't this announced in the budget? Did Moderna’s announcement this morning sort of catch you off guard?


No, no. These things are ready when they’re ready.

The final terms were agreed over the recent days. Yesterday, the Government signed overnight, Moderna filed their market notifications, this morning, we’re announcing.

And aso, it is very much a case of, as we’ve done through the whole pandemic, whether it’s in terms of medical advice, whether it’s in terms of declarations, whether it’s in terms of announcements with regards to procurement, as things have been ready, then they’ve been done.

And we followed that orderly process here of negotiation, really with the booster strategy in mind. Secondly, the capacity for agreement. Thirdly, signature late yesterday and then finally, announcement to market which was what was intended, just the way the company wanted to do it. And then we provide the update and the announcement to the Australian people this morning.

Now, with regards to the availability, that will be a question for the scientific and technical advisory group. What really matters to Australians - this locks in our capacity to ensure that every Australian has access to a vaccine this year.

And, yes, it was in our thinking as we’ve gone forward with the budget and these things are ready when they are ready. But that was in our thinking. But it also locks in our capacity to ensure that there is a booster strategy for every Australian next year.

And we really have two main options. We have Novavax or we have Moderna, and both are there as either a booster or as a variant strategy.


Can you provide a little bit more clarity in terms of those budget assumptions as to Australians will get one or two jabs by the end of this year?

And further to that, if there is hesitancy among the community who do wait for a Pfizer or indeed, for a Moderna shot later in the year, will that blow out that timeline?


No, is the answer to that question. And yes, is the answer to the first. I feel it’s set out very clearly the actual budget assumptions, as the Prime Minister and the Treasurer have said, based on the likely whole of population access during the course of the year.

And that means that we want every Australian to be able to have that access to a vaccine shot during the course of the year. Those that would have access to mRNA in the last couple of weeks of the year, they would obviously would have their second shot in the first couple of weeks of next year.

But we also know that there will be individuals who decide late and we don't want to prevent them of that or they may come of age or they may have been ill or if they’re in the care of family members, their family members might develop confidence later on and provide the consent.

And so, what we’ve got is to ensure that every Australian has access to whole-of-population vaccine this year. And the difference is a three-week difference for the mRNA vaccines.

And in the last quarter of the year, we expect that will be overwhelmingly an mRNA-based program. And in that situation, the difference between first and second dose is actually impaterial. It’s the three weeks.

And as the Prime Minister said this morning, the budget is based on numerous assumptions, you know, whether it’s from the iron ore price or to the number of people that will take up Medicare services, to the number of people who will take up childcare services.

The fundamental COVID assumption is that we keep Australia COVID-free, which I think is a strong assumption and then, in terms of the vaccination that every Australian has access to that whole-of population option, everybody who has taken the vaccine before about the 10th of December, will have completed their vaccine in this year, their second dose.

Anybody who has it after 10th December and that would be - that may be a portion, would just be in the first few early days, which is an immaterial outcome.

So hopefully, that provides the response.


Specifically, with these booster shots, can you get a booster shot from Moderna, just to make sure this is clear, no matter what other type of vaccine you’ve had?

And with this strategy around boosters and variants for next year, is that what is behind the very long timeline in opening the international border, the need to be set up for boosters and variants?


So, I’ll let Brendan deal with the medical advice and then in terms of the borders, that is an element. That is right.

We have been conservative and so, of course, we can beat our estimates, but we didn't want to make an estimate, which we weren't able to meet.

And so, that’s, I think, the really important thing there. Historically, in terms of our general budgeting, it’s been caution and as you’d see, even with the iron ore price, it’s a cautious expectation on the iron ore price, compared with where it is now, but we wanted to make sure that we would under promise, rather than overpromise.

So then in terms of- what does that actually mean? The medical advice, as we learn more, will allow us to know more about the longevity of the vaccinations and the transmission effect.

And the transmission affect is how many people are likely - although we’re likely to see 100 per cent or very near universal protection against serious illness, hospitalisation or loss of life - how many are likely, nevertheless, to contract the disease, which we do know is now a reality from around the world with particular types of vaccines, and what is their capacity then to pass it on to others, which we do know is a possibility, but you have a decreasing probability.

So, that advice will determine it. The booster strategy or the variant strategy was considered as part of the assumptions, but you know, when we see proposals, as the PM discussed this morning, for students and others, we really welcome those. Those are great signs of increased capacity to bring people into the system in Australia.

And the more people who are vaccinated, the more it protects Australia. The more people who are vaccinated, the more the option is there for individuals to leave, to come back under changed circumstances.         

Brendan, on the choice of vaccine?


So, we think there is no reason why you can't mix and match vaccines.

The trial data is not out yet. There’s some trials being done in the UK, looking at AstraZeneca first dose and Pfizer or Moderna second dose. There’s no good scientific reason why you can't boost with one and then have another vaccine later.

In fact, there may be some benefit in doing that because you might get some, particularly for the adenovirus vaccines, you might get adenovirus antibodies that might reduce efficacy for a booster dose.

So, there’s still emerging data in that space but this investment is assuming that that will be possible and we have no reason to think it won't be.


Minister, when did negotiation first start with Moderna? Was it sped up by the blood clotting in the AstraZeneca?

And then just thirdly, when you do approach the market, where is it likely that the mRNA vaccines will be produced? Is South Australia?


So, certainly, I won't pre-empt an approach to market. And one of the reasons is there are a range of potentially very viable approaches and proposals.

I think three of them have been talked about publicly - CSL, Biosena that I think you’re referring to and now, Moderna. And it’s only as they have acknowledged publicly, that we’ve acknowledged.

And so there are certainly others that are potential but we don't know whether they’ll be put forward.

So, that’s why Christian Porter will lead an approach to market process, to be opened in the next 10 days and he’ll have more to say on that at the time.

Then, in terms of Moderna, as we went through, the scientific advice, was begin with Pfizer. They were the most advanced in terms of their trials. They were the most reliable in terms of their supply.

That’s not a reflection. It was just a hard reality call. And then throughout, we have focused and followed the scientific advice.

So, you have talks which are ongoing, but the scientific advice was now is the time to strike with regards to a booster and variant strategy, once the belief was that they were well placed to do that.


So, it wasn’t anything to do with the AstraZeneca blood clotting that sped up your decision?


No, this was- our real thought along the way was, as we get 2021 locked in, we have to be preparing for 2022. If you think of it as three horizons of short, medium and long term.

We’re always working on the short term and then looking at the medium, which is 2022, and the long term is the mRNA production capability to supplement the CSL vaccine production capability in Australia.


When do you anticipate that we will actually have mRNA vaccines manufactured here? How long will it take to contract negotiations, setting it up and then actually having them roll off the line? And is the timeline for that linked to the timeline for opening international borders?


No, the mRNA production doesn't affect that because we have good, strong mRNA supplies, on top of viral vector and protein. So, that doesn't affect the timelines. The approach to market will reveal that and we’ll make that judgement through the approach to market.

Our goal is as soon as possible. It doesn't happen overnight is the honest answer.

Brendan might be able to give you more of a guidance, but I certainly don't want to put a time on it because we’re going to open an approach to market, but we’ve already have had three firms publicly affirm that they will be part of that approach.


So, it’s very unlikely to be this year. It’s going to be some time next year, I would imagine, before mRNA vaccines can be produced here and, as Minister Hunt said, our primary vaccination strategy is in no way dependent on this.

But, mRNA vaccine technology is likely to be much broader than COVID vaccine. So, it is something that we in Australia need to have anyway. It may be the way forward for flu vaccines and other novel vaccines in the future. So, it’s a technology we need to have.

We are one of the small number of countries that have onshore sovereign vaccine manufacturing capability and we want to keep ahead of the game in that space.


Minister, why isn't Queensland setting up a vaccine hub? Apparently, the state government are saying they don't have enough supply?


There’s plenty of supply for all states. These are choices for states and some states have scaled back their ordering and if they wish to renew their ordering, we would be very, very happy to do that.

We’re in a strong situation with regards to supply now. So- but we respect that there are differing approaches. The GPs, the GPRCs or the respiratory clinics are doing a great job.

Queensland itself has done over 150,000 vaccinations on my recall and so, all of the states and territories are doing a great job and we’re respecting how they’re doing it on the ground.


And just following up on Rachel’s question, regarding some people probably waiting for Moderna or the Pfizer vaccine. Are you expecting any wastage of AstraZeneca? Have you given any direction to CSL in terms - are with still going have 50 million doses produced? Where are we at with that? What’s going on with that vaccine in terms of what we prepared for then?


So, we’ll meet our needs and if there are surplus requirements, then we had talked about - that gives us the capacity to share on a humanitarian basis with our friends and neighbours in the region.

So, we’ll meet our Australian needs first, but we are in a strong position that there is the capacity which we’ll assess. We’re continuing on with the production because we think if a country can be producing vaccines, the world needs those vaccines if we have more than we need.


So, we’ll still produce 50 million AstraZeneca domestically?


Correct. And then Claire.


Minister, there are reports vaccine oversupplies appearing in the United States. Is there any prospect we’ll see more Pfizer doses arriving in Australia earlier than planned and how concerned are you around the reports over Novavax this week, they’re suffering manufacturing issues? Are we still expecting to see any Novavax this year, for example?


So, the Novavax hasn't changed our expectations. As you’d know, we had very conservative expectations on the arrival.

So, the advice I have is there is no change to our expectation and our advice is that we will receive Novavax this year, but we’re always are planning for contingencies and it’s one of the things is, you know, every day this pandemic throws up challenges.

Our challenges have been significant, but less than the rest of the world. And I think that is the important perspective.

So, we’ve prepared, this does provide us a contingency in case. Novavax is a contingency in case something were to happen with Pfizer or Moderna. And so we have a multi-layered strategy.

Now, there’s one other question?


Pfizer oversupplies in the US.


Okay. So, have had this discussion with Pfizer. Our vaccine in Q3 increases significantly. We’re expecting a doubling in Q3, approximately double what we’ll have in June.

We’re likely to see during that third quarter, that has already taken into account what was an anticipated general completion of the US program. So, that was part of the element.

e’re always looking; we’re always looking to see if we can bring things forward, but I’d rather not make a false promise on that. We have a large volume in Q4, which means that we will have, you know, as I said on Monday with Commodore Young, an all hands on deck approach to paraphrase him, paraphrasing naval terminology.



Minister, there are a number of studies at the moment going on, into effectively mixing and matching types of vaccine doses - either having two of one kind, one of another as a booster, or one of one kind and then the second shot being different.

As those results come in, if they show that it isn’t effective to have Moderna after Pfizer or that it’s more effective to keep on the same type of vaccine. Is there enough flexibility in our supply to respond to those studies and maybe, Professor Murphy, how closely are you looking at those studies?


I think we’ll start with Brendan.


So, the answer is absolutely yes. We’ll be looking at those studies when they come out and we have sufficient redundancy of supply to adjust our strategy according to what those data show.


Briefly, Minister, do you expect that the mRNA manufacturing capability would be government owned or private sector owned and government contracted?


So, certainly, we would prefer private sector owned and operated. That's, you know, an important way to do it.

One of the things that Brendan did is he helped lead the negotiations with CSL for long-term contracting for our flu, pandemic flu and in particular, our anti-venom and Q fever procurement, over the course of more than a decade.

That investment then allowed CSL to make the commitment to move from egg-based to cell-based vaccine manufacturing in Australia.

What they have now said is given that the world has jumped, possibly a decade, but certainly a number of years, in one year, because of the requirements of coronavirus and the pandemic, they’re now considering whether or not that is a cell-based, mRNA-based or a cell and mRNA-based plant. So, just that approach of we contract and they deliver, is probably the best.

I will take one more, Josh.


You’ve been asked about Moderna for a long time. We’ve been asking questions about Moderna for a while and reportedly, one of the sticking points was a no-fault compensation scheme.

Could you, I guess, comment on that? Were you able to, sort of, number one, was that a consideration? Have we been able to get over that consideration? Are we offering Moderna this sort of facility?


There are no barriers to signing with Moderna. They've accepted our terms and so, we’re very happy with that and we've obviously negotiated with them.

All of the vaccine contracts, as I've said previously, include a waiver. But we haven't changed our broader position in relation to legislated environments.


So, no no fault compensation scheme?


We’re not about to change that.

You know, we continue to make sure that each contract protects Australians, but it’s done in a way which recognises the needs of individual companies, and let’s put it this way, we're very happy with the outcome of the contract.

Firstly, in terms of the negotiated processes but much more importantly, it gives us that midterm 2022 booster and variant strategy and the safety and security that backs up everything that’s in the budget for this year.

Thank you very much and take care.

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