THOMAS ORITI: In a bid to relieve pressure on the nation's hospitals, millions of Australians are now eligible for COVID antiviral drugs on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and more Australians are also now eligible for a fourth COVID vaccine. Those changes this week, we brought them to you yesterday morning. Another seven and a half million Australians as a result can get another booster as new Omicron sub-variants drive higher case numbers around the country. With more, we're joined now by the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly. Professor, good morning and thanks for your time. Antiviral drugs firstly, can I ask you about them. What exactly are they and how do they stop COVID from becoming more severe?
PROFESSOR PAUL KELLY, CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER: We've got a range of treatments for COVID now. Over the last year or so we've had treatments that have usually required intravenous use , so it needs to be in hospitals, mainly. Whereas earlier this year, we have introduced two oral treatments which can, of course, therefore be taken at home and very early in the treatment course, so as soon as possible after someone's been diagnosed.
But they've been out there in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, so available for GPs to prescribe by prescription and be supplied through pharmacies in the usual manner for a number of months. What happened over the last few days and announced by Minister Butler on Sunday, it was an expansion of the availability and eligibility for those treatments, which should make it much easier for people to firstly be prescribed and secondly, to start those medications early.
So, key point to listeners today, Thomas, is that if you are in those higher risk groups of people over the age of 70, people over the age of 50 with two risk factors, the range of those you can get information on the website or by a normal medical practitioner, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders over the age of 30 with two risk factors are now all eligible for those oral medications. And now's the time to go and talk to your normal medical provider about that availability. So, you have a treatment plan in case you were to develop COVID over the coming weeks and months.
ORITI: Is there a reason why the eligibility only expands that far if they are effective? Is it a supply issue?
KELLY: No, there's plenty of supply. We do hear reports occasionally that particular pharmacies don't have it on their shelves on the day but they can get them very quickly and we're working very closely with the pharmacies in the Pharmacy Guild about that supply to actual pharmacies. But there's plenty of supply in the country, so that's not an issue. The main issue is really what the evidence shows about their effectiveness. They are very effective in decreasing the chance of death and serious illness and hospitalisation for people who are at higher risk of that. Recognizing that most people that have had COVID so far, and will do into the future have a relatively mild illness, but there are some people that are at higher risk of severe illness and that's what those treatments are for. People over the age of 70 are at the highest risk, people who are 50 years with at least a couple of risk factors and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders a little younger with those risk factors are at higher risk.
ORITI: Sure and check the website for that list of chronic illnesses, if you are eligible. I just want to turn to the booster, sorry to interrupt. Can you explain, I'm just interested in the definitions here. Can you explain to us why the fourth shot has now been made available for people over the age of 30 but only recommended for those over 50? Once again we're hearing supply is not an issue. So what's the difference there?
KELLY: Supply is not an issue. We have plenty of vaccine at the moment. This is again based on the evidence and the effectiveness and we rely, as we have from the beginning of the pandemic, certainly since the vaccine started in early 2021, on our ATAGI group, that's the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation that advises the Health Minister, Minister Butler and they had a discussion with him early last week, talked to them about what we were expecting in terms of the to epidemiology. There's the new wave that is starting in Australia with the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of Omicron. And they took that into account with this change in their advice. We know, again, the people that are at highest risk of getting severe COVID are people over the age of 70 but, and in this case over the age of 50, we know that a fourth dose will improve the chances of having a more mild illness and not ending up in hospital and so that's where that strong recommendation came. But also in the context of many people feeling they wanted to have that extra protection, there is certainly no harm.
ORITI: But that was my question. Sorry to interrupt, but is the difference there, there is no concerns over a higher risk profile for someone under the age of 50 if you get that fourth shot then, is that right? It's only about questions over its efficacy, whether it's worth getting it.
KELLY: It's certainly worth getting it and I'll encourage people to consider getting that vaccine in that 30 to 49 age group. It didn't go below thirty because there are some recognized side effects in younger people, which was taken into account in terms of that recommendation. Let's say a mild increase in protection for the 30 to 49 and much higher increase in protection for over-50s and certainly over-65. And again, I'd encourage anyone, well everyone in Australia to consider where they're up to with their vaccination journey at the moment and to go and make that appointment to get whatever vaccine they are due for and do it now.
ORITI: Can I just ask you because I've heard some criticisms. I just want to put one to you. Professor Adrian Esterman, an epidemiologist from the University of South Australia. I mean, he's expressed concern at the moment around the government's messaging of COVID. He's even accused the government of essentially giving up trying to inform people of the current risks of the virus or the benefits of the fourth dose. What would you say to people who don't think enough is being done or that there's perhaps mixed messaging because you might have people in the 30 to 49 year old age group thinking, well hang on, you're saying I can choose to get it but you're not recommending that I get it. Are you concerned that might be a little bit of confusion there for those younger people thinking as to whether they should get the fourth dose?
KELLY: I certainly encourage anyone who is confused to look at the information we have on our website or they need to talk to their normal health practitioner and trusted person to get that information. Then as I said, for that younger age group, it is available, if you want to get that, it's available. For those over the age of 50, absolutely encourage to get that fourth dose as soon as possible or third dose if that where you're up to. We still have, as you know, Thomas, around 30% of Australians who are due for their third dose, have not come forward for that. I can absolutely say that two doses of vaccine is not enough to protect you in the optimum way against the Omicron variant of COVID-19 and the new variants that are coming are more transmissible and potentially, this vaccine can save you from severe illness. So, I would very much encourage anyone who is due for another vaccine to make that appointment today.
ORITI: Just while we've got you there, just finally, Professor Paul Kelly. We were speaking with a virologist from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore about an hour ago on the program and he said that they, in the US, they're closely watching what's happening here, because it could spell what's to come there in the Autumn in the Northern Hemisphere. What's your message to other international health experts now we're well and truly into winter?
KELLY: They are watching very closely. I actually had another very good discussion with my counterpart in the US as well as the UK, New Zealand and Canada last week in the Northern Hemisphere. They're very closely watching what's happening here and in New Zealand in terms of facing flu and RSV and other winter viruses as well as COVID. We're the first two countries in the world really to be facing that after two years of not having flu. So, they're very much considering what they should be doing in preparation for winter. They are looking, for example, at some of the new hybrid vaccines that have been produced for COVID which are not yet available, but may be available in time for their winter surge. So, that is the COVID vaccines that would include both the original virus which is the vaccination we've been using during this period plus a range of other options in terms of an Omicron variant in there as well. So they’re certainly quite concerned about our experience with flu, which does seem to be settling a little bit at the moment. But the good news there is that our flu vaccine seems to have had a good match with what with what has been circulating. So, they are very keen to hear more about that and we're continuing to discuss it.
ORITI: Paul Kelly, thank you very much for giving us the time. Appreciate it.
KELLY: You're welcome, thanks Tom.
ORITI: That is Professor Paul Kelly, the Chief Medical Officer.