OLIVER PETERSON: I mentioned at the top of the program that ATAGI is meeting to decide whether it will recommend a fourth COVID-19 vaccination for the Under 65s. That decision is imminent, and on the line. Joining me live this afternoon. The Health Minister Mark Butler. Welcome to Perth Life.
MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Thank Ollie.
PETERSON: Any word from ATAGI here?
BUTLER: No, not yet, mate. Look, sometimes after they've had their deliberations, they work for a little while on the wording of the final decision to make sure that you know it's very clear for doctors and for the health system and for and for the community. So we might not hear today, sometimes I know in the past under the previous government it was a day or two before the final decision was really clear.
PETERSON: Do you imagine that there will be a recommendation of the four-shot Minister?
BUTLER: Look, I think there is a strong case. You know, this is not my personal view but I pick it up across, I agree with it, but across the health system, there's a strong case for expanding eligibility for a fourth dose. Currently it's over 65, some other groups, some Indigenous Australians under that age and also people with compromised immunity. But broadly that 65 year cut off is seen as pretty high if you look at the rest of the world, so I'd be very surprised if it wasn't dropped. It might not be absolutely everyone in the community because there's still not a great deal of evidence yet for very young, healthy people getting the fourth dose at this point in time, but certainly some of those middle age groups, I think there's a strong case for.
PETERSON: About a quarter of the eligible population to date haven't had their third shot. How do you go about convincing Australians to have their fourth?
BUTLER: That is, that is the point I've been trying to make up over the course of today. Yes, it's all well and good to have expanded eligibility for the fourth dose, but there's still that I've got to say, the third dose rates in WA are fabulous, they're the highest in the country, certainly of the major states and I think you see that in lower hospitalisation rates per capita than in some of the other states where there's a lower booster shot. You know, there are still more than 5 million Australians who are eligible for boosters who are more than 6 months since they had their second dose but haven't had it yet. I mean, if we've got to get the message out that two doses of the vaccine is not proper protection against this Omicron variant. It gets around those two doses. So, you know, I don't want to just focus on what ATAGI might do today. We're pushing that message of the need for a third dose very hard. We've started an advertising campaign. Get that public information out, really push the message that two doses is not enough, you need a third and even for the over 65s, who have had a fourth dose available to them for more than 3 months. Still, 40% of them haven't taken it up and I really strongly encourage that as well. We've got very clear experiences in our hospitals, about the people who are most at risk of having to go into ICU, having to be ventilated, or even worse at risk of death and it is overwhelmingly much more likely to be people who haven't, who are not up to date with their vaccines.
PETERSON: The reports are that the Omicron variant continues to change, so would that fourth jab be a tweaked formula or is it just another of the jabs we've already had?
BUTLER: Well, right now, it's still the original strain of the vaccine or generation of the vaccine, which is all built around the original Wuhan strain of the virus. Right now, Moderna and Pfizer have what they're calling variant vaccines that are going through the regulatory processes across the world. It started with the FDA, the American agency which has usually been the first agency to consider new vaccines. They're looking at the Moderna and the Pfizer variant vaccine right now. What that variant vaccine does, it targets the original Wuhan strain but also the Omicron strain so it's what they call a bivalent vaccine, it's got two strains of spike virus in it and the clinical data is is very, very effective, including against the Omicron so, so we're talking the Moderna and Pfizer. I met with them last week. The department's having formal negotiations with them right now to make sure that we get priority access to this next generation of variant vaccines, but they're not on the market just yet.
PETERSON: Just on that, you mentioned the Wuhan strain there on a couple of occasions. Minister, is that what we're referring to the original variant now as?
BUTLER: Well, that's generally because the first variant was Alpha, so the original strain called the wild type virus you see it referred to differently in the health literature. Generally the coverage I’ve seen of these new vaccines refer to those two, those two, Omicon, the original wild type virus, which is commonly referred to as the Wuhan strain. There's no perfect way to describe these things but the first variant was called Alpha and there is no Greek letter before Alpha.
PETERSON: That's true. What about children under the age of five, is ATAGI looking at this now as well?
BUTLER: The TGA is still looking at the Moderna vaccine under-five and they've been looking at that for a few weeks. So, I've got a bit more work to do on that. This is very new around the world. The Americans, again, are almost always the first in the queue. That's where the vaccine companies tend to take their vaccines first of all. They have been rolling that vaccine out now, only for several days, maybe a couple of weeks at the most to under fives. The TGA is pretty well-advanced, I think, in looking at that vaccine, the Moderna vaccine here for Australia. If they approved that in the coming days or weeks, then that would go to ATAGI. But can I make this message to parents of under five-year-olds? Right now today, if you haven't already, you should be thinking about getting the influenza vaccine for your young one. Under-five and particularly under two-year-olds are a high-risk group for influenza. We're seeing that in the case numbers right now. We've seen kids have to go to hospital for influenza. So, look, the under-fire vaccine is probably coming in the next few weeks. But right now, today, my message to parents of very young children is get your kids vaccinated for influenza. It is a serious virus for under five-year-olds.
PETERSON: Minister some people might say when does all of this end or has it ended?
BUTLER: Well we're certainly, I think, in a different phase, you know, we're just coming into it, a new wave of Omicron unfortunately that will be the third Omicron wave this year. The big wave in summer which WA largely escaped, the BA.1 wave but was very big in Eastern states probably millions of people were infected, then. Then the second wave BA.2 wave which did catch WA because the borders had opened in April, May and we're just going into a new wave now. It’s been in place for a couple of weeks in the Eastern states moving its way westward across South Australia, my state, and WA as well. And already we're seeing big increases in case numbers and unfortunately, a very big increase in the number of people going to hospital with COVID. That's up several hundred only in the last fortnight across Australia so, you know, we are moved into a different phase. I think we've moved out of the emergency phase of the pandemic with lots of lockdowns and border closures and things like that. But this virus hasn't gone away. I mean, it's still a race to make sure that we get vaccines into people, boosters into people, antiviral treatments out to particularly older Australians who are vulnerable to severe disease. There is still more work to do.
PETERSON: You made mention there how it is starting to see a new wave of Omicon in the Eastern states moving across the country. In WA, we're actually closing down some of the testing centres. We’re not reporting daily cases at the moment but as you made mention of other states like Queensland and South Australia, they are encouraging the wearing of masks again. Do we now need a national approach, Minister? Do you need to lead the COVID response from the Federal Government and we get rid of this idea of every state managing it at a local jurisdictional level?
BUTLER: Well, I think we'll see a mix. Although we had a really good meeting of health ministers on Friday in Canberra, a face-to-face meeting. It was highly constructive. I think there are a range of things that we discussed doing across the country whether it's about boosters, messaging about that. you know, representations to ATAGI about the fourth doses, particularly increasing the availability of these oral antiviral tablets and capsules, rather than having to go to hospital and get anti-viral treatment intravenously. So, there is a lot more work I think happening at a national level, which is a level of cooperation between the Commonwealth and the states that, to be blunt about it, you didn't really see as much with the former government. But there still will be a state-by-state approach to things like mask-wearing. I mean it's quite a deal of commonality on public transport. I heard one of your listeners talking about that before I came on. You know it's care facilities and hospitals, you know, there's mask mandates in place for domestic air travel, essentially because all of the state governments have taken that decision. So there's actually quite a bit of uniformity across the place. But although I don't see any states being about to reintroduce broad mask mandates, I think they're behind us, I think all of the health advice is if you're indoors and you're not able to socially distance, particularly as we head into this new wave, you should carefully consider putting a mask on if you can't socially distance. It does provide additional protection.
PETERSON: Minister I appreciate your time, thank you very much.
BUTLER: Thanks Ollie.