ANDY PARK: COVID case numbers are climbing across the nation and the vaccine advisory board is considering making a fourth COVID dose available for the general population. That dose is currently only available to those aged over 65, Indigenous Australians over 50 and the severely immunocompromised.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese yesterday said it was no longer a matter of if eligibility will be extended, but when.
PRIME MINISTER ANTHONY ALBANESE: My view is that we will inevitably follow what has occurred in other parts of the world and roll out a further booster shot. Because we know that, over time, people's immunity decreases.
PARK: Mark Butler is the Federal Health Minister. Welcome to RN Drive. Minister, do you share the Prime Minister's view that a fourth dose for the general population is inevitable?
MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Yes, well certainly for groups that are younger than the 65-year-old threshold right now. I think there is a very strong case for that. Whether you're covering the whole population is still, I think, an open question around the world. Younger, very healthy people, whether the time is right for a fourth dose for them I think is something ATAGI will be considering. But around the world, you are seeing thresholds more like 50, maybe 55 years of age. There's some good evidence that it’s providing stronger protection for them.
PARK: Is there enough doses to support the broad rollout of a second booster?
BUTLER: There is. We have substantial amounts of vaccine available to us right now. I do want to stress that that's not the only demand though on our vaccines. There is still a job of work to do to get third doses into people who are eligible for them. There are still more than 5 million Australians who have gone more than six months since their second dose but haven't taken up their booster. I really want to urge those people to go out and get a booster. And there's still a substantial number of over 65s who haven't had their fourth dose yet. That's been open to them for well over three months but still 40 per cent of people aged over 65 haven't taken up that fourth dose so I'd strongly encourage them to do that as well. We do know that two doses of the vaccine is simply not enough to provide protection against these new variants.
PARK: You must have an insight into why people haven't picked up that third dose, as much as other countries. Is it a little bit of COVID fatigue, as in sick of hearing about it - not the long COVID variant if you like. And maybe it's a bit of “Well, I've had COVID so why would I keep on doing the boosters”?
BUTLER: Well, I think we are trying to understand that really well Andy. I mean, I was critical of the former government for some months for not having a really strong information campaign about the importance of boosters. It became very clear as Omicron started to hit, not just Australia, but around the world, that two doses were not enough to protect against that new variant. And that's become more and more apparent as we've seen Omicron start to mutate as well into four or five different subvariants. So, I thought the former government just didn't put the message forcefully enough that two doses is simply not enough. You're not fully protected with two doses. Instead I think too often there was a sense that the booster was something that might be nice to have but wasn't essential. I think it is essential that is the health advice I've got. So, when we came to Government, when I was appointed as Health Minister I made sure that the department, The Health Department, prepared and put out a much stronger information campaign about the need to get boosters, particularly as we go into this winter, and as we start to see already the early stages of a third Omicron wave already this year.
PARK: What do you make of the AMA's Chris Moy’s comment about so-called vaccine imprinting. In that you're basically, in his theory, teaching your immune system to respond to the weaker variants, not the most updated variants that we are really facing down this month.
BUTLER: Well, I think where we're learning more and more about that as we get deeper into this pandemic. We’re obviously a very different stage to the emergency phase of the last couple of years but this virus is not going away. It's continuing to mutate and the vaccine companies are looking at adapting their vaccines - particularly Moderna and Pfizer - so that they are targeting not just the original strain of the virus, the Wuhan strain which really our current generation of vaccines are all based upon, but also targeting the mutations that you see in the Omicron variant. I've been having some very productive discussions with Moderna and Pfizer over the last couple of weeks and our Department is having some more formal negotiations than those discussions, to make sure that we are right at the top of the list of countries who have access to those new so-called variant vaccines that they are adapting in the same way that the virus is adapting.
PARK: On RN Drive. Federal Health Minister Mark Butler is here. We're talking about the vaccine advisory committee’s meeting on whether to extend eligibility for a second COVID booster. Will the roll out for the fourth vaccine be run entirely through pharmacies?
BUTLER: And GP surgeries I think will be the case. And we have thousands of points now across the community pharmacy sector and GP surgeries where you can get your vaccine. You can get your third dose, you can get your fourth dose if you're over 65 or those other groups you mentioned in your intro, Andy. And I think that's more than sufficient to continue the vaccine effort through whatever remains of the pandemic, whatever comes our way. Certainly, State Health Ministers and their Chief Health Officers are saying that, given the real peak of the vaccination effort in the middle of the last year has passed, when we were at some points vaccinating a quarter of million people a day. They want their nurses who were staffing their state-run clinics to come back into their hospitals because we know hospitals across the country are frankly heaving under pressure. Not just COVID, although COVID hospitalisations are climbing very fast right now. More than one-in-20 hospital beds is filled with the COVID patient but they've also got flu and they've also got all of the other conditions the hospitals are built to deal with.
So, getting those nurses back into the hospital system away from some of those state-run clinics, is an understandable desire by state hospital systems and I'm confident that we can deal with third doses and fourth doses through GPs and community pharmacies
PARK: Minister, you said you’re critical of the former government and a lack of a campaign to clearly articulate the risks of COVID and the benefits of a vaccine. I think more than 40 per cent of the over-65s population haven't had that fourth dose. Is there any evidence that there has been an uptake of boosters since the government renewed the campaign? Do you have any metric on that?
BUTLER: Well not yet. I mean, it's only really been running over the last several days or couple of weeks. I mean, it takes a bit of time to do some really good research, get a sizeable group of people, ask them why it was that they went and got their booster.
PARK: But surely you'd see that even in a few days in terms of vaccination numbers. Doesn’t the Commonwealth have access to that data?
BUTLER: We do get that data. I just don't think that several days is enough time really to make that determination. These campaigns will run for several weeks. It takes a while to start to imprint in people's minds. That's been that's been the long experience I think of public health information campaigns over a few decades. We don't expect to change things overnight with this, this takes a long investment, not just advertising on social media in TVs and suchlike and billboards. But also getting out and telling the message. You will have seen my state colleagues over the last several days saying this because they're on the front line, seeing their hospital systems heaving with pressure. They're out just reinforcing the importance of people being up to date with their vaccinations. That third dose or fourth dose for people over 65. We know how important that is to stop people moving into severe disease or hospitalisation or even death. We're still seeing 300 people or more lose their life to COVID every week at the moment.
PARK: So, on the protection of hospitals to really prevent the overflows we started to see last year. Particularly states like Queensland, they've warned that certainly hospitalisations increased 140 per cent over the last month. What assurances have you sought and received moreover that they'll be able to manage given states like Queensland, have already raised concerns about staffing?
BUTLER: Well, I mean, all of the hospitals are dealing, across the country, are dealing with that big increase in hospitalisation numbers. And, at the same time, you know they have workforce who are being hit by COVID themselves, given the number of cases across the country inevitably, that takes a whole lot of health workers out of the system. We expect case numbers to climb, probably climb quite a bit over the coming several weeks or couple of months as we deal with this third Omicron wave.
I think we all understand. We had a very productive meeting on Friday, all of the health ministers. We all understand how important it is to provide support to the state hospital systems. The Prime Minister and Premiers and Chief Ministers decided to extend our support through the COVID hospitals agreement that was due to expire at the end of September. That will now run until the end of the year. It's an additional three-quarters of a billion dollars investment from the Commonwealth to help states out with their hospital systems.
PARK: Why have mask mandates at high-risk locations like airports been removed? Doesn't that send a bit of a confused message on the need for masks?
BUTLER: Well, I think the message is that masks are still very effective. Particularly if you're indoors and not able to socially distance. I think health authorities and certainly I encourage people to consider using a mask. It will provide strong protection. But I think as we move into this quite different phase of the pandemic, there is a view from our health authorities that mask mandates are not absolutely required and are going to be difficult to maintain, into a third year of a pandemic. So, what you need is strong vaccinations, people being up to date with vaccinations. A good distribution of some of the very excellent oral antiviral treatments for people at risk of severe disease and encouraging people to wear masks when they think it's sensible. There are still mandates obviously on public transport, on aeroplanes, in aged care and in health facilities. But some of those broader mandates, I don't see any real prospect of returning across the community
PARK: Just lastly Minister, health authorities in New South Wales are urging people to be aware of the symptoms of Monkeypox following a likely transmission of the virus within our borders. There is a vaccine available - is the Federal Government seeking to purchase more doses in case cases spike?
BUTLER: Yes, we do have substantial numbers of a vaccine that is able to be used in response to Monkeypox. We’re also in discussions with vaccine companies about an alternative version of that. It's essentially the same vaccine as the smallpox vaccine, so we have quite a substantial number of supplies in our National Medical Stockpile already. The Chief Health Officers are keeping closely abreast of what's happening with Monkeypox virus. The case numbers are still very limited here in Australia we're grateful about that. We're very glad about that.
We haven't seen the big increase in numbers that have been seen particularly in Western Europe and the UK. But our Chief Health Officers are monitoring this very closely. They're talking to GPs through information sessions to make sure that GPs are alert to the signs of potential Monkeypox virus infections and as you said we're making sure that our medical stockpile is ready for any increase in cases.
PARK: Federal Health Minister, Mark Butler, thanks for your time tonight.