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Press conference in Melbourne about COVID-19

Read the transcript of a press conference in Melbourne with the Minister for Health, Greg Hunt, about $400 million funding boost for health and medical research, World Health Assembly motion and an update COVID-19

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

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…particularly as we continue to deal with this current global pandemic that’s COVID-19. I’d like to congratulate Professor Allen Cheng from Monash’s Faculty of Medicine, Nursing & Health Sciences who will receive $1.7 million towards his research into linking illness and death from severe influenza in Australia.

Professor Cheng is an expert in respiratory diseases and on a number of government advisory committees, including those involved in COVID-19, because his research is so important in what is a novel disease, but a significant respiratory disease. I want to say that the $400 million in funding that the Minister has provided is so timely.

Now more than ever, the world depends on researchers who are able to tackle something we haven’t seen before, do it at speed and safeguard the health of our communities. I’d like to think that here at Monash, with world-class medical and health research, we’re well-placed to tackle the challenges and to help to make that impact, not just for our local populations, but nationally and internationally through what is ground-breaking research at world-class facilities, in collaboration with industry who help to spread this work and make it available to the community.

In addition to Professor Cheng’s work, Monash University researchers have been (inaudible) many transformative responses to COVID-19, which include developing candidate vaccines and tests to detect infection risk; contributing to national requirements; changes to ventilators; personal protective equipment, hand sanitiser; building public awareness about how COVID-19 infects the most vulnerable, from the victims of domestic violence to others in our community when you have such a significant health and economic effect.

And in fact through a landmark interdisciplinary research collaboration called the ‘Melbourne Experiment’, which is looking at the effects of COVID-19 restrictions on the functions of the city. Funding announced today though goes to the fundamentals and our ongoing health quest to improve the health of our communities worldwide.

I thank the Minister for his continuing and strong support and advocacy for health and the health research that improves our communities. I’m very pleased to invite the Minister to say a few words.


Thanks very much to Professor Margaret Gardner, the Vice Chancellor here at Monash University, Professor Allen Cheng, one of, not just Australia’s, but a world-leading epidemiologist who’s played a very important role as part of the medical expert panel advising the National Cabinet – the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.

But to all of our researchers, both here at Monash University and around Australia. Australia is a world-leader in medical research. We are also a world leader in health policy and public health policy in particular. And that's why I want to welcome the World Health Assembly motion which passed overnight – a consensus motion passed unanimously with 137 co-sponsors.

And Australia has helped provide the impetus and the resolve to ensure that we have an impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation of the origins, the source, the passage, the response to COVID-19. Those things together are about saving lives and protecting lives - medical research and public health policy.

So today, I am delighted to be able to announce almost $400 million for 267 projects under the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Medical Research Future Fund. These projects are immensely valuable. $87 million for cancer research, $54 million for mental health research – something which is so much in focus at any time, but particularly during the course of the isolation and the pandemic – $46 million for cardiac funding, and in particular, $84 million for infectious disease control and research.

One of those projects is Professor Allen Cheng's $1.7 million, which is looking at vaccine preparedness, in particular with an influenza and pneumonia focus, but with the capacity to apply the learning and the research and the knowledge to coronavirus or to future pandemics or epidemics that break out either in Australia or across the world.

So that research is fundamentally important to this crisis but to future crises. More broadly, as Margaret said, Monash University, $47 million received for 30 projects, a national leader, a world leader, but part of our Australian response to any international crisis and part of our capacity to help provide the world with support and help protect Australians as we go forward.

But there are universities right across Australia that are participating in this. Two hundred and sixty-seven projects, $399 million. Examples such as the University of New South Wales - $620,000 for research into youth mental health. Such an immensely important, potentially life-saving program with a focus on depression and anxiety amongst young people.

The $2.7 million for the Queensland Institute for Medical Research, which is focusing on genomics and decoding the genetics of breast cancer. These are real projects of immense importance to the lives of Australians. So whilst we are dealing with COVID-19, we are also dealing with all of the challenges that Australians face in their ordinary health challenges.

As part of that, I'm also pleased to be able to give the update in relation to COVID-19 for Australia. We are now at 7,071 cases, and sadly, as was noted yesterday, the 100th life was lost to coronavirus. In particular, there have been 11 cases in the 24 hours to 7.00 AM across the country. Six states with no cases. One state, New South Wales, where all four of their cases were in hotel quarantine. And in Victoria, one of the cases was a hotel quarantine.

So five out of the 11 cases have come from hotel quarantine. And that emphasises the first of our containment measures, border control, as being absolutely essential. In additional to that, our testing remains world-leading, both in terms of numbers and in terms of accuracy. And then- and we've now had approximately 1.1 million tests conducted across Australia, which is a tribute to the work of all of our public health and private pathology providers.

Third, within our containment strategy is our contact tracing, and our contact tracing continues to follow every case. We also have now 5.9 million downloads of the app, which I think is an extremely important development. We continue to have Australians downloading and we will continue to urge Australians to download the app, for the very simple reason, it helps keep you safe.

And then finally, we have our social distancing measures. And as we begin to emerge from some of the isolation, it's absolutely critical that we maintain our physical distancing. Physical distancing, the 1.5 metre rule, is about saving lives and protecting lives. And so, it's fundamental that even as we re-emerge from our isolation, we maintain that physical distancing, and that will help protect Australians going forward.

Finally, that brings me to the capacity in our system. We have helped build that capacity enormously. Over 7,500 ventilation units available around the country. We are now down though to seven Australians on ventilation. And each one that is reduced is a cause for celebration. It’s a cause to recognise that fewer and fewer Australians are at risk.

We know though the challenge is not over and so we have to continue to fight, which is why we have been so supportive, why we have helped provide the impetus, why the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister have worked across multiple nations to see that an independent inquiry is supported, and now has been supported, through the World Health Assembly.

And that is about taking the lessons, no matter where they come from, and applying them to protecting people from around the world, so as we can move quickly, as Australia has done, but to make sure that every nation is equipped to move quickly to save lives, and protect lives. Australia's role has, I think, been a very important role in helping to see this resolution come to pass and this resolution now be enacted in a way that will give the world greater protection going forward.

Happy to take any questions, firstly from those who are here, and then secondly from those who are on phone. But first, we'll hear from Professor Allen Cheng. Allen, thank you also for your work with the medical expert panel as well as your principal research.


Thanks. Thanks very much, Minister. And it really, I think, is a tribute to your leadership and following expert advice as to the position that Australia is in at the moment. We don't have to look very far to know what could have been, and Australia is indeed in a very good position because of the work of the Government. So thank you.

And thank you for your support of medical research. It's a really important time for medical research. Obviously, when I applied for this grant, we didn't know about COVID, and my work is mainly in influenza. But clearly, it's very, very relevant to COVID-19.

So the system that I'm involved with is already monitoring for cases of COVID, and we're able to evaluate any vaccine that might come out after it's deployed to see how effective it is. REMAP-CAP, which is one of the trials that I’m involved in, is already testing- enrolling patients and testing treatments all around the world.

It is working like a self-learning healthcare system that can get people onto the best treatments as the trial progresses. So all of this is really important work in responding to COVID, and I’m very grateful to NHMRC and to the Australian Government for supporting my work and the work of many others in response to this. Thank you.


Elias and then Liam.


Minister, Victorian health authorities have begun using the COVIDSafe data. What information can you tell us about that, and is it the first time this has happened in Australia?


So firstly, because we actually locked down by legislation the information, we only know general principles and the Victorian Government has informed us that they have used it. We’re told that all of the states and territories are using the COVIDSafe app, but in six of the states and territories, for example, there have been no cases.

And the fact there have been no cases is a cause for celebration and those that are in hotel quarantine, by definition, they should only show up those that are sharing the quarantine facilities. So our understanding is that other states have used it- well, previously. I understand that Victoria has, I understand that New South Wales has sought data where it’s had cases.

But that was again confirmed by New South Wales this morning. So the app is there. It serves its role, and with all of these things, what we do is we prepare for the worst for outbreaks, but where we don't have outbreaks, where we are down to less than a dozen cases, then we have preparations that are in place.

We have mechanisms that are there, whether it’s in terms of testing, tracing, the app. They’re all serving their purpose to protect Australians now, and they have helped us contain it, but they’re helping us prevent future outbreaks.


So just confirming, it’s not the first time?


The advice I have is that other states have been able to seek out information, in particular the advice we have is that New South Wales has been able to seek out information before. The interesting thing, though, is that there are very few cases in Australia. So overnight, Victoria has confirmed that they have it.

We don't actually get the details of individual cases. As part of the legislation, we were very clear, only state officials have those details, so only state officials have them. The only two states that are getting any numbers of cases at the moment are New South Wales and Victoria, and New South Wales has primarily come through the hotel quarantine.

So we don't have individual details. That was part of the protections we put in place for Australia, and that’s something that was absolutely clear from the outset. But we understand that all states and territories have working systems, and that’s again been reaffirmed by the latest advice from Victoria and New South Wales this morning.


Minister, drops to the international student revenue mean that 40 per cent of Australia's research workforce, 40 per cent of scientists right here, face losing their jobs in the next few weeks. How are you going to look after them?


Look, I think there are couple of things. Firstly, of course, we have put in place the very important protections of JobKeeper and JobSeeker. Secondly, the faster that we are able to progressively bring back our normal activities, subject to exactly as the university’s got here, the appropriate physical distancing measures, then that will be very important for Australia.

Thirdly, we have also indicated that we are welcoming of proposals for universities, subject to it being at the same time as their general student populations, to look at means of bringing back, through supervised, stringent quarantine, international students. That’s something that both state and Federal Governments would be willing to consider.


JobKeeper of course doesn’t apply to universities, though, does it?


No, I understand. But more generally, around the country, what we’ve done is we put in place protections that are been supporting the economy, and in particular, with the situation with regards to universities, it’s up to them now to put forward proposals.

But I know, talking with Margaret, that the university is very active, along with other universities, in putting forward proposals for careful, cautious, quarantine-based resumption of international students. A number of the Premiers have talked about that, and we remain very open and very welcoming to proposals that they are likely to put forward.


The Morrison Government is of course presiding over a science or research and development budget that is the lowest in 40 years. Is this a bad time to be cutting funding for science?


Well, with great respect, that’s not true. We are going to a doubling of health and medical research with the creation of the Medical Research Future Fund on top of National Health and Medical Research Council. I’m here today to announce $399 million of medical research funding.

The Medical Research Future Fund has overseen on top of the NHMRC the largest growth in medical research that I am aware of, and so those figures, with respect, are just simply incorrect. You must be excluding the Medical Research Future Fund, and that's not an appropriate thing to do.


Just back on the app, there have been reports that New South Wales Health officials have been unable to access the data for contact tracing. Are those reports true?




Okay. And whose- which state is the leader in downloads? Do you know that much?


No. We don't know these things because we put in place legislation that said Commonwealth officials could not have that data, and a lot of states have asked can we have the data as to how many downloads our state has had, and the answer is no, we don't. When we put in place these protections, we were really serious. They’re legislated by law.

What the app does is it provides, where there is a positive case and the consent of the individual, the capacity for the state to access through their public health officials and only their public health officials the contact details of that person. And it has one job, to provide those contact details, and none of the data other than we know how many registrations there’ve been is available to the Commonwealth.


Qantas said that there’ll be no social distancing on planes. It seems as if there’s one rule for one thing and one rule for the other. You can only have 10 people in public, but you can have a full aeroplane.


So I will refer that to the Chief Medical Officer 's and Chief Health Officers. And there obviously are different circumstances, but all of the rules regarding what are appropriate social distancing or physical distancing activities are being overseen by the AHPPC, or the medical expert panel.


Does that concern you, though? If there’s 150 people squashed into a Qantas plane? And Qantas advising people to social distancing-


Well, one of the things -one of the things that we have done, and that’s why I am very glad that Allen is here, from the outset, from 21 January onwards, the Prime Minister, the National- the Australian Cabinet, myself, and subsequently the National Cabinet, committed to following the medical advice.

So we’ll be guided by the medical advice, and I think that’s the best way forward here. Now, I’ll do the thing and answer questions from those that are online. I think, Claire first?


Thanks, Minister Hunt. During your speech at the World Health Assembly you highlighted, not just the need for the inquiry, but that it might consider expanding the inspection powers of the World Health Organization so they do have timely access to data and information in those critical early stages.

How important do you see it that this review, inquiry, whenever it takes place, that the recommendations are actually enacted? And are you confident that China would agree to something like inspections, given their response in the last couple of days to not even wanting to acknowledge Australia's role in getting this inquiry together?


I think the global response to the World Health Assembly motion has been deeply heartening, and we know that 137 countries co-sponsored. The advice of the Foreign Minister is that to the best of our knowledge, that’s the largest number of co-sponsors ever for a World Health Assembly motion.

Countries from all around the world, from all different continents, have co-sponsored. That means there is a commitment to the process. We are committed to the process, we have other countries committed to the process and one of the things we want to see is, not just an independent and impartial review, but real steps forward on independent inspection capabilities.

These capabilities are very important for early identification of risk, of early identification of new forms of transmission and to discover the source and these- of this or other outbreaks around the world. We know that in a connected world, we have to do this. So we are committed. We’ve laid out our principles.

We set out our resolution, and we’ve followed that path. And that is one of the things about the Prime Minister - you know where he’s coming from. We’ve set out the principles, we’ve followed those principles, and we really welcome what the world has done.

So I am both confident and hopeful that, going forward, this resolution will represent a transformative moment in international disease detection and discovery, going forward.


Minister, one last question on antibodies.

GREG HUNT:         

Liam’s got a question. Yeah?


The Doherty Institute has obviously found that both of the antibody tests we purchased are substantially less accurate than claimed. Your top scientific advisor have said that they can't be used for zero prevalence testing, they can't be used for point-of-care testing.

Are you going to ask for your money back?


With great respect, I have seen your stories, Liam. They’re called antibody tests. Now, of course, there are two different types of test. There are tests, PCR - polymer chain reaction test - which seek out the virus.

They are the tests which are used for early detection. And antibody tests, by definition, only detect antibodies. Allen can give you more detail on the nature of antibody testing. But that means they are used for late stage testing. For example, in Western Australia this week, we saw two cases which were not detected early.

Six weeks approximately later, they were detected through antibody testing. So the antibody testing there was able to show that a disease had been missed, two in fact, early on. So different tests for different roles. One of the things we’ve been doing, recognising that in New York or in other countries we see that what New York City and other countries such as Italy, that antibody testing has been used for population scale testing where there’s been a mass outbreak.

We have prepared for ventilators, for other equipment, for mass outbreaks and this is part of preparing for a mass outbreak. We are in a fortunate position where we don't have a mass outbreak, so we are prepared for those circumstances. We’re prepared for population testing if that’s required.

I hope we don't require 7,500 ventilators. We're down to seven cases on ventilation. I hope we don't require mass population testing or subsequent review testing on a major basis. But we are prepared for all of those. And that’s their role and that’s their purpose.

Okay, so I think Tom?


Thanks for taking our questions, Minister. Do you expect to see an increase in cases when Australians return to broader air travel, particularly for leisure as state borders reopen? Is there a role for National Cabinet or the Federal Government in coordinating a return to domestic travel?


So National Cabinet has set out that there are no National Cabinet barriers to states bringing down those internal border restrictions or cross state order restrictions – they’re not determined by the National Cabinet.

They were identified as an element potentially for later stages, but it will be up to individual states, and we respect that role and we understand that role. But all of those states are being guided by the AHPPC, of which Allen is a member. And so the states are following medical advice, the National Cabinet and the Australian Cabinet are all following medical advice. So we respect their right, and we respect the fact that they are following the relevant medical advice for them.

Okay, Dana?


Thanks Minister. Just on the $42 million research money for COVID-19. What would the parameters be regarding which research projects get funded through that?

And just on hydroxychloroquine being trialled in Australia now, what do you make of Donald Trump’s decision to take the anti-malarial drug against the advice of the FDA?


Look, firstly I’ll leave matters in other countries for individuals and their medical advisors.

Secondly, in Australia we have the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute which is conducting a clinical trial under highly supervised circumstances for health workers based here in Victoria - another great institution- the Commonwealth has provided $3 million of funding for that. But it is under the strict supervision of some of the world leading medical authorities, some of the finest medical researchers and it’s being done very carefully.

So, each country will establish their rules. What we’re doing is establishing the structures and then the funds. So, in terms of the broader MRFF funding to which you refer, the MRFF has calls in with regards to vaccines, preventatives and treatments, and so they’re being assessed through the peer review process for those rounds that are out now.

We’ve already made some allocations with regards to the University of Queensland, the vaccine work that they’re doing; with regards to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and the preventive which they’re doing, and they’re all coming together.

So, Australia is really playing an extraordinary role in health and medical research more generally, but in particular with regards to COVID-19. And then I think I’ll finish with Richard Ferguson from the AFR.


Hello Minister, I’m from The Australian.




No, that’s okay. Is there any medical reason to have state borders closed now? And what’s your message to the states? Would you like to see all borders reopened by July?


So look, firstly, in terms of state borders, it’s not been a decision of National Cabinet, so then it’s the medical advice that individual states are facing. So, we respect the medical advice of individual states, we’ll let those states both make their decisions but also determine the medical reasons for their decision - so, we respect that element.

In terms of the timing, that’s a matter for the individual states. More generally, we are hoping that the country can progressively return through the roadmap to a careful, managed normality, and that’s what we really want to see.

We recognise that some changes are with us for a long time, the physical distancing, the hand hygiene, the cough etiquette. In particular, the hand hygiene and the cough etiquette, they should be permanent changes in the way in which Australians go about their day-to-day lives. The physical distancing is with us now.

And then in terms of borders, we’ll respect the right, the role, the conduct of individual states on this, but also the fact that they have their own medical advisors. Alright. I think one last from Elias?


Thanks Minister. Is Donald Trump’s hostility towards China wearing the Australian government’s relationship with Beijing?


Look, we focus on Bendigo - not Beijing or Boston. Our decisions are made in the interest of Australian citizens, based on Australian values.

And so, ultimately, at a time when there are lots of international pressures coming from many different directions, we set out our principles and our values, and sometimes it’s difficult to stand by those principles and values, but those difficult times are the most important times to stand by those principles and values. And that’s what we’ve done through this World Health Assembly motion.

The Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Australian Cabinet determined that the world needed to know how this disease arose and how we can better respond. There have been over 320,000 lives lost, we are approaching five million confirmed cases, it’s had an impact on the global economy beyond anything we have seen in any of the economic crises since the Second World War.

So, that’s why we believed, on principle and on values, it was important to take this step. We made the decision for ourselves, we were fortunate to work with other likeminded countries and we welcome the fact that the world has adopted this approach and we think this is a very important step forward.

Thank you very much.

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