Date published: 
12 April 2021
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

FRAN KELLY:       

As we were just discussing there with the Minister, Scott Morrison has abandoned the Government's COVID vaccine rollout target, saying he hopes that all Australians will get their first vaccine by the end of the year, but it can't be guaranteed. More than 1.1 million doses have been administered so far. But Labor's Shadow Health Minister, Mark Butler, says new health advice around the AstraZeneca vaccine has made, quote, a bad situation worse, blaming the Government for failing to sign more deals with other vaccine suppliers.

Professor Paul Kelly is the Commonwealth's Chief Medical Officer. Paul Kelly, welcome back to Breakfast.

PAUL KELLY:       

Good morning, Fran.

FRAN KELLY:       

We'd all been told that anyone who wanted a vaccine would get their first injection by October this year, that goal's now been abandoned. How long will most of us be waiting to get vaccinated?

PAUL KELLY:       

Well, Fran, we still have the plan to give the vaccine to as many people as possible as early as possible. And that's always been the plan.

In terms of our priority populations, the so-called 1A, 1B and then get into 2A, they've- they're largely unaffected by the announcements last week, except for those aged care and health care workers who are under 50. And those ones we do need to consider what plan we have for them, for those priority populations, those most likely to be severely affected or exposed to the virus.

And so, that's continuing. And we continue to look at what that new information we've had and what we need to do to- about that for the rest of the population later in the year. We did have the announcement also last Friday of further Pfizer doses but they won't be until the last quarter of the year, probably. So, that will- that also has to be factored in. We've always been nimble in our approach to new information and safety's always been our first priority.

FRAN KELLY:       

Sure. But this is a blow, though, because it presumably means if we're not getting that last 20 million doses from Pfizer till the last quarter, that it won't be rolled out before the end of the year, which means, you know, getting back to life, pre-COVID life won't happen until then, will it? I mean, it means that bor- does that mean, for instance, the borders would need to be closed until the whole population is vaccinated?

PAUL KELLY:       

Well, we provided information to the National Government and then to National Cabinet on- during last week and then on Friday at the National Cabinet meeting around that, the sort of health issues which tie into the economic issues, the social issues and the whole range of things.

FRAN KELLY:       

[Interrupts] Which are very linked.

PAUL KELLY:       

Yeah, of course. And so …

FRAN KELLY:       

[Interrupts] So, does the withdrawal of that target mean, we all have to set- accept it will take us longer to get the economy back to full speed, international borders open?

PAUL KELLY:       

So, we were at the AHPPC that everyone knows about now, that I chair, the chief health officers from all the states and territories and other experts have been tasked specifically to give some detailed health advice in relation to those matters. But it is very dependent on the vaccine rollout. That's true.

But the main issue is that we get those most vulnerable people vaccinated as soon as possible. As I heard Norman Swan this morning saying, winter is coming and winter is coming. And so we need to make sure that we absolutely continue with that and we are continuing. There's 4000 points of contact in general practice and the general practice respiratory clinics and Aboriginal health sector by the end of this week and that's a phenomenal update.

FRAN KELLY:       

[Interrupts] And that was the point that Norman was making, that, in fact, you say we need to be nimble. It was the point Norman Swan was making earlier, that yes, we have the plan of 4000 GP clinics to be rolling out the vaccine. But in fact, GP clinics won't be able to rollout the Pfizer vaccine; that will be an inappropriate thing.

So, we need to, as Norman said this morning, I think, turn on a sixpence and have another vaccination rollout, perhaps a hub program for the under 50s for that 2B rollout.

PAUL KELLY:       

So, a couple of points I'd make there. So, in all of the announcements last week, what might have been missed by Norman and others is the fact that actually there is- there are revised ways of, safe ways of rolling out the Pfizer vaccine. This is with- the TGA have looked at the data that Pfizer as a company has provided. Looked at what the FDA has decided in the US over recent weeks and has concluded the same conclusion about the way that Pfizer can be rolled out.

So, it no longer needs that ultra-cold storage through the whole process. It's quite stable now and they've shown us it is stable at normal freezer temperature and at normal [indistinct] temperature.

FRAN KELLY:       

So, GP clinics will be able to administer it?

PAUL KELLY:       

Well, you know, we can put that revised information into the plan. We won't be able- we weren't able to do that previously because that wasn't the advice. But as always, we're following the advice from the TGA in relation to the vaccine itself and advice on safety and other matters from ATAGI, the vaccine group.

FRAN KELLY:       

Were we too slow to pick up on this concern and act on it? I mean, it was mid-March that European scientists identified concerns between- about the link between AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clots. They were reported in The Wall Street Journal on March 19, we've been discussing them here on Breakfast, other media outlets. But the- Australia's expert vaccine group only updated advice on April the 8th. Were we too slow?

PAUL KELLY:       

So, I would dispute that, Fran. We've been following this information far more assiduously than the media; I can tell you that right now. We've been very much part of the discussions in Europe and in the UK …

FRAN KELLY:       

[Interrupts] Yes. But we've been getting reassurances from you and the Prime Minister that it's all okay.

PAUL KELLY:       

So, let me just finish what I was saying there. All the way through that process, we've made three announcements actually, from ATAGI and the TGA in relation to this matter. And the last one was made on the day after it was made in in Europe and the UK. And as soon as ATAGI, the expert group on these matters, provided information to Government just after seven o'clock on Saturday- on Thursday night, we were out there telling the Australian public, so there's been no delay. I refute that completely.

FRAN KELLY:       

Okay. Is there enough Pfizer in the country at the moment for all the under 50s frontline workers and at risk Australians. How many doses are in the country right now?

PAUL KELLY:       

So, in terms of Pfizer, what we need to do with that, just recognising that there are- it's important that that second dose after three weeks occurs. Now Pfizer is coming from an external source outside of Australia. That's- they've been a very reliable comp- partner in this since the end of February when the first doses arrived. But you know, as all your listeners are aware, that this is a really difficult situation in terms of international supply at the moment. So, what we decided early on was that we would make sure that whoever got a first dose of Pfizer had a second dose that would be available at that three-week period. So we've been keeping that so-called contingency in relation to that. Every other dose of Pfizer has been put into, now mostly the state and territory clinics but also into our aged care rollout.

FRAN KELLY:       

[Interrupts] So what I was asking though is how many doses we have in the country now and if there's enough for every health worker and frontline worker under 50 to be vaccinated?

PAUL KELLY:       

Well, we're getting Pfizer doses in relatively small numbers every week. And as we're getting them, we're rolling them out. So I'm not going to talk about numbers today but I can guarantee that every dose is either in that contingency for the second dose or it's on the road on the way to a place to be given.

FRAN KELLY:       

Sure.

PAUL KELLY:       

Or it's being given. That's it.

FRAN KELLY:       

[Talks over] How many roughly do we get in every week? Because we're- in this first 20 million order?

PAUL KELLY:       

So that changes week on week and we've been talking virtually every day to Pfizer to say, can we increase that pace? But the problem is that, you know, as we all know, there's a lot of people wanting that particular virus- vaccine at moment. So, as they arrive, we get them out.

FRAN KELLY:       

And those extra 20 that we've now secured an order for that come in the last quarter; will they be this- the same as this vaccine or will they be the one that will be effective against new variants?

PAUL KELLY:       

Yeah, so that's a really good question and that's something that we're talking very actively with the company at the moment, just recognising that we know they're doing that work. And that's one of the great things that the mRNA vaccines can be done, they can be adapted quickly. So that'll be a process between now and then to work out what's the most effective vaccines that we need, recognising that they're only in experimental phases at the moment, they haven't tested those fully.

FRAN KELLY:       

Just in terms of as many people as possible, as early as possible. That's what the Government's working for. There are fresh concerns this morning that people living and working in specialist disability care are not getting the rollout happening as quickly. Let's have a listen to Andrew Richardson, who's the Chief Executive Officer of one of the biggest providers of residential disability care. He's from the provider, Aruma.

            [Excerpt]

ANDREW RICHARDSON:

It's shameful. Not one person with a disability living in any Aruma supported independent living setting has been vaccinated.

            [End of excerpt]

FRAN KELLY:       

No vaccinations in Aruma's 350 group homes, that's at least fifteen hundred people. How is that possible?

PAUL KELLY:       

So people living in disability group homes are part of 1A. They will be vaccinated before the middle of the year. And very happy to talk to-

FRAN KELLY:       

[Interrupts] Before the middle of the year? Is that how fast the 1A priority rollout is? That's slow.

PAUL KELLY:       

So 1A and 1B are overlapping, and those two will be finished before the middle of the year. So we're very happy to talk with Aruma. I'm sure my colleagues that work in disability care have already talked to him. And we'll follow that up today.

FRAN KELLY:       

Who's rolling out to disability care? Because they're not the only group expressing concerns this morning. Who's in charge of that rollout? Is it a private company? Do you- are you concerned it's behind schedule?

PAUL KELLY:       

So, the disability care and aged care residents and the workforces in both of those sectors are primarily a Commonwealth responsibility. I say primarily because there's different, slightly different arrangements in each of the states and territories and we've got private contractors that are, you know, very reputable companies that are doing that work.

FRAN KELLY:       

Okay. Just finally and briefly, if you would, there seems to be confusion amongst GPs about this updated health advice. The President of the AMA's New South Wales branch advised doctors in that state not to administer the AstraZeneca vaccine to anyone under 50 unless there are exceptional circumstances. Is that the right advice? And does that mean that if, say, my young producer, when it gets to stage 2B time, wants to have AstraZeneca, they can get it? Should the GP administer it or not?

PAUL KELLY:       

So just- the- on the AMA, their National President came out very strongly yesterday with a statement in support of the Government's position. So I think that's the AMA position.

FRAN KELLY:       

[Interrupts] I understand that. I'm just trying to get clarity here for under 50s. If they want it, can they get it?

PAUL KELLY:       

Yes, they can. And I mean, just to be very clear what the advice was last week. The advice is that Pfizer is preferred as far as the option, if it is available for those under 50s. The reason is the whole risk balance- risk and benefit balance equation. So in older people, we know the risk of very severe COVID is higher than in younger people. We know on the other side of the ledger that the- this extremely rare, but serious clotting issue is more common in younger people. So there's that balance.

So if you're your producer under 50, sorry, I can't remember the name, but if she- should go and talk to her GP about that. And there was very sort of specific circumstances, you know, for example, if she had to go and visit her mother who was dying in the UK, at the moment, I would not want to be going to the UK without being vaccinated. And so if AstraZeneca was the only one that was available, then that's the discussion with their private doctor.

FRAN KELLY:       

Paul Kelly, thank you very much for joining us.

PAUL KELLY:       

You're welcome, Fran.

FRAN KELLY:       

Paul Kelly is Australia's Chief Medical Officer. But as you can hear from that, I think there remains some uncertainty or certainly some unclear answers to questions around the vaccine rollout.

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