Date published: 
23 June 2022
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

WALEED ALY, HOST:

Antivirals are very hard to get, says one texter. My friend, who is 70, had COVID, has asthma, and a heart condition, and lung damage, and didn't qualify. Unbelievable. It's a scoring system. Who's getting them? The unvaxxed? Well, not that many people are getting them it seems to be. I read today that only about 50,000 antiviral doses have been taken since March, and we've got 1.3 million doses sitting on warehouse shelves. Why? And what exactly is the new government proposing to do about it? Because they have announced today that the Department is going to try to find ways to get more of them to people. The Federal Health Minister is Mark Butler and he joins us now. Thank you very much for your time this morning. Do you have any thoughts as to why we've ended up in the situation where antivirals are sitting mostly on shelves rather than with people?

MARK BUTLER, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE:

Good morning, Waleed. They are still quite new. Paxlovid, for example, the Pfizer antiviral which is taken in tablet form, was only put on the PBS last month. And before pretty recently, the only real antiviral treatment people had was to be in hospital and receive antivirals on an IV drip. So this advance that allows people to get tablets in a very, sort of, ordinary way on prescription from their GP, from the pharmacy is a wonderful advance, a wonderful development.

The point I made yesterday is as I've come in and got briefings as the new Minister for Health is that I just don't think there's enough awareness of it. The research we've done shows that the vast majority of people aren't aware that there are now these oral antiviral treatments that have demonstrated to be very protective for people against severe disease, against the risk of going to hospital, and really importantly, against the risk of death. So what I've tried to do yesterday is really lift the awareness and asked my Department, and I'll speak to state ministers at our meeting next week, about what we can do to make sure that people are aware of the availability of these treatments and get them as soon as possible. Because the key thing, Waleed, is you need to start taking them within a day or two of getting COVID. People have to act very quickly.

ALY:

Which means they need to be easily accessible and…

BUTLER:

That's right. The point I made yesterday is people need to have a plan for if they get COVID. If they're over a certain age, if they have a number of risk conditions, they should talk with their GP about a plan in the event that they get COVID. And if they get a positive test, they should ring their GP and seek a telehealth appointment immediately. And that GP, if they qualify, will be able to give them an e-script, so an electronic script that's sent to their pharmacy and they should have someone pick up the tablets as soon as possible.

ALY:

You might have heard me read the text out before from a listener who said they didn't qualify. It was just very hard to get. Do we have criteria problems here?

BUTLER:

The original advice, the advice that stands right now from the health experts is that this should be given to people over a certain age. So over 65 if you've got a couple of risk factors. So, for example, if you're obese, you have diabetes, you have kidney failure, a range of other neurological conditions, your GP can go through those risk factors. If you're over 75, you only need to demonstrate one risk factor. Or if you're a general adult over the age of 18 with compromised immunity, which is a pretty easily identified condition. Through the COVID pandemic, people will understand that if they have compromised immunity, you also qualify for those. So your GP can step you through this. The other really important thing is that these tablets do have some interactions with existing medications. So if you have one of these risk factors, you're probably on a number of other medicines and you do need to talk to your GP about which of the two oral antivirals, there are two of them, Paxlovid and molnupiravir, which would be best for you given the medicines you're already on. So people can't just trot down to the pharmacy and get them over the counter. This is something that requires a bit of analysis from your GP, which is why I make the point if you think you qualify for these, you haven't had COVID yet but you're fearful of getting it one day, have a chat with your GP and make sure you've got a plan so that as soon as you get the test you know what to do.

ALY:

Minister, you make it sound so frictionless, but I'm already getting texts pointing out that in real life it doesn't work that way. GP clinics are booked out a week to ten days ahead, says one text. There's no way to access timely antivirals through your GP at the moment, another text. Try getting even to talk to your GP. You can't get a telehealth appointment even if you try. Is there a way that doesn't involve going through GP's that might be more efficient? Because, as you yourself said, it's very time sensitive.

BUTLER:

It is time sensitive and I don't want to pretend that things are frictionless getting into GPs. I've been making the point now for months that it has never been harder to see a GP than it is right now in Australia. And that's not particularly related to COVID, although it's been aggravated by COVID. So I don't pretend that's easy, which is why I do say that it's best to make a plan ahead of time with your GP so that hopefully what your GP will have done is that he or she will be ready for that call from you to say I've contracted COVID, I need a script for one of these oral antivirals as a matter of urgency. But look, this is still fairly early days. And as I've come in as the new Minister, it is apparent to me that there's not sufficient uptake. We know that if there's better uptake, it will drive the hospitalisation rates down, which is obviously much better for the people involved, but also will relieve some of the strain we're still seeing on our hospital systems across the country. So next week I'll be meeting with state ministers, including Minister Martin Foley, and we should have a really deep discussion about how we can lift awareness and remove some of those frictions. One of the points I've made for example, is to lift awareness whether people, as soon as they get a notification of a positive COVID test, whether they can also be made aware that if you qualify over a certain age, you may be able to take treatments that are significantly, very significantly, reduce your risk of severe disease.

ALY:

Other countries, I think probably most notably the US, are just pumping them out. It seems like anybody can get them relatively easily. Now that might be a slight overstatement, but you take my point that compared to here, the access is just so much better. Why is it so much harder here?

BUTLER:

I'm not sure whether you're talking about the qualifying criteria. So the fact that there is only a restricted number of people in the population who can qualify for this on the PBS. This is something that I know the experts will continue to monitor. They are relatively new medicines, quite new medicines. So monitoring them, looking at the research across the world about how they operate, and considering whether or not to broaden those criteria to a wider group, I think, is something the advisory groups will be considering.

ALY:

But especially if it seems that other countries have moved, it's about risk profile and appetite for risk, I suppose, and the risk profile of COVID is still quite high. It's killing a lot of people. It's not dominating the news cycle but that is still happening. Wouldn't broadening the criteria be a risk that seems well worth taking?

BUTLER:

You're right. And I tried to make the point yesterday that we are not through this pandemic by any means. There are high caseloads. Almost one in 20 public hospital beds across the country is filled with a COVID patient. And we're losing more than 300 people every single week, including dozens still in aged care facilities. So I really do want to reinforce the fact that although for most people, life is returning to normal and if they contract this disease, it will probably be a mild to moderate illness, for a substantial number of Australians, this is a very severe disease that poses a very real risk of hospitalisation or death that is posing- putting real strain on our health and hospital system. But the question of risk is ultimately something that we'll take advice from public health officials about. They're looking at this day in and day out, trying to balance that risk profile, as you describe it, and recognising that these- although they are medicines that provide great protection, they also do have substantial interactions with other medicines you might be taking. So you can't just get them over the counter. You do need to take advice from your GP about what other medicine.

ALY: It's not paracetamol, is it?

BUTLER:

hat's right.

ALY:

Just quickly, we've got 1.3 million doses on shelves. You said these are new drugs. They can't be that new if we've got that much just sitting there. What are those drugs and do we have a supply problem?

BUTLER:

I'm not aware that we have a supply problem. No one's provided me with any advice that we have a supply problem. There are two medicines: Paxlovid and Molnupiravir. Paxlovid's the more recent one that was put on the PBS only last month; Molnupiravir a little bit earlier than that. They are still relatively new. It is really, I think, a question of awareness. People are being inundated with information about how to deal with COVID, including GPs and aged care facilities constantly getting information from governments, including our government, about the latest response that we want them to put in place. So, you know, we do need to sit back and just reflect on whether we've put out the right information to the medical community. I know aged care facilities have been provided with these tablets. They should have them ready in their medicines stock on the facility to be able to give it very short notice to anyone who contracts COVID in an aged care facility. But the point I was making over the last 24 hours is 50,000 doses, given the breadth of the population who are eligible for this and the number of COVID cases we're seeing every day, doesn't seem enough to me and I want to increase uptake.

ALY:

Alright. Minister, thank you very much for your time.

BUTLER:

Thanks, Waleed.

ALY:

Health Minister, Mark Butler.

Ministers: