Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly's press conference on 17 February 2021

Read the transcript of Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly's press conference on 17 February 2021 about coronavirus (COVID-19).

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Good afternoon everyone, It’s Paul Kelly here in Canberra to talk about the COVID-19 situation in Australia. Firstly, I’d just like to say thank you to Mandy, It is wonderful to have someone beside me giving an interpretation that is very important.

The next thing I would like to say, the great news is that we have no locally acquired cases here in Australia today. Huge contrast with the rest of the world where yesterday there were over 340,000 cases with almost 10,000 deaths. We haven't had a death from COVID-19 as an acute case since October of last year. So, that's the good news. We continue to have very few people in hospital, 12 at the moment, no one in ICU, and no one of course therefore ventilated.

So, particularly the zero case number is important to recognise the wonderful achievement in Melbourne, where they have again had no community-acquired cases today, and the very welcome announcement I'm sure for friends, colleagues, and others in Melbourne and the whole of Victoria, that that lockdown restrictions will be eased from midnight tonight. That really is a great credit to everyone that has been involved with the contact tracing, the testing, and those that have been in isolation and in lockdown through this period. A real shout out to Professor Brett Sutton and his team down there that have been doing all of that great work, and for everyone not only in Victoria but around Australia who have come forward to be tested in huge numbers over the last few days.

Yesterday in Australia 84,000 people were tested, including almost 40,000 in Victoria alone. That is terrific, that is the way we find out about where the virus has spread, and be able to chase down those chains of transmission and make sure they don't go further.

The second thing, and this is related of course to Victoria, is last week I did name greater Melbourne as a hot spot from the Commonwealth point of view, and just to remind everyone that that allows us to give further assistance, including financial assistance, to Victoria, to Melbourne, so that was due to be rescinded at midnight tonight. And I can announce that that will go ahead on the basis of the information that has come out of Melbourne. So, they were really the two major announcements for the day, so I will pass to question firstly in the room.


Professor Kelly, the polling from the Department of Health yesterday suggested that something like 27 per cent of people were considering not getting the vaccine, and about 9 per cent said they definitely wouldn't. Is that concerning, those numbers for you?

PAUL KELLY:       

Yes, of course, that is what we are call vaccine hesitancy. We certainly are concerned about. That 9 per cent number, that's a difficult one to shift, but of course the 27 per cent number is higher than we have seen before. I believe actually the information was that 27 per cent were going to delay- looking to delay their vaccine rather than to not have it. But even so, that demonstrates that we need to continue to stress the vaccines as being safe and effective, and the great news of course yesterday was that we now have a second vaccine that has had the full approval from the TGA, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, our Independent regulator in relation to medicines including vaccines. So, we have two now. The Pfizer vaccine of course arrived earlier this week, and is on track to be rolled out starting next week, and that is good news.

I just really want to stress here for those of you who are considering about the vaccine, please, when your turn comes, line up and get it, because these vaccines will save lives. Absolutely, both the AstraZeneca and the Pfizer vaccine show very strong protection against severe disease and death in relation to COVID-19. They work, they are safe, and they are coming very soon, next week for our priority populations, and very soon for the wider community as well.


Would you like to see employers encouraging their staff, people in the community, to go out and get the jab to join the effort of encouraging people?

PAUL KELLY:       

Absolutely, I think as many people as possible getting this jab particularly before winter would be a very strong thing. For those that are in those priority groups, starting with border workers, moving to our frontline healthcare workers, as well as aged care and disability care, those in residential care in particular, as well as the people who look after them. They're our priorities. We definitely want them to be vaccinated as soon as possible. The more people that do get vaccinated the quicker we can get back to some sort of normal life. But absolute priority, getting to those ones that are most vulnerable of getting severe disease. And as I have said already, these vaccines, both of them will save lives, and the more people that are vaccinated the better.

I will go to the phone now. Tamsin from The Herald Sun?


Thanks Professor. Good news from Victoria today. Given that we're announcing the state come out of lockdown, are you- in hindsight, was the response by the Victorian Government proportionate and are we going to continue seeing these short, sharp lockdowns until we're all vaccinated?

PAUL KELLY:       

Certainly, the vaccination will change the way we look at the virus, and that was announced after the last National Cabinet, the Prime Minister announced the formation of a task force, led by Phil Gaetjens, the Secretary of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, to look exactly at that, what is the influence of the vaccine rollout as it increases, and it will increase quickly once we get started next week on those sort of decisions. And I spoke with Phil this morning actually, thinking through some of the health considerations there. And the AHPPC - that met again, we are still meeting daily - had a brief discussion about that as well and we will have further discussions in coming days. So, the vaccine will affect our decision-making, I am sure of that. In terms of the Victoria decisions about what's happened in recent days, obviously that is a decision for the Victorian Government to make on the basis of their health advice. We have multiple rings of containment here, one is the border and that will be strengthened by the border workers being vaccinated in the first few weeks of the rollout of the vaccine. Then we have our public health response, the testing, tracing, the contact tracing, case finding and isolation of those people to protect the wider community. That has worked really well, again, in Melbourne and in the rest of Victoria. And real shout out to the people who have been involved with that. The next ring of containment is around movement restrictions like lockdowns, and that is a decision that needs to be made when it needs to be made, and I will leave it to the Victorian Government to talk through that and their response.

Sarah from The West Australian?


Thanks Professor. Just back on the vaccine hesitancy, last week we obviously had epidemiologists at the National Press Club sharing their thoughts on the vaccine rollout. One of them- or, they were in agreement that we need to have a quite high proportion of the Australian population being vaccinated this year and into next for it to have a material impact on the safety of all Australians, and they sort of quoted a number like 95 per cent. Is that a view that you share? Is that too ambitious? Are we going to reach those kinds of numbers in 2021 given those hesitancies that we have already talked about today?

PAUL KELLY:       

Well, it will be a challenge to get high rates of vaccination, but I am very confident that Australians will see the benefit of this vaccine as it rolls out. And we have very good data so far which has been assessed by the TGA, our independent regulator. We will get and are getting more information from the United Kingdom, and other countries like Israel, that have already done quite a lot of vaccination in the past couple of months. In fact, I have spoken to UK colleagues twice in the last week about that. They are very clear, both of those vaccines that are being used - so, in the UK, they are using both the AstraZeneca and the Pfizer vaccine - and they are finding that both of them are working very well, they are both safe, and they are definitely saving lives. We are starting to see a very large and rapid drop in hospitalisations and death in the UK. Now, how much of that is related to the actual vaccine will remain to be seen, but we believe we will get strong information about that in the coming weeks.

So, I would say to anyone, all Australians, please, when your turn comes consider getting that vaccination. And the more people that are vaccinated, particularly in those most vulnerable groups that might otherwise get severe infection, that is going to be a great benefit. And for those of you that are not in those vulnerable groups, please get vaccinated because it is good for you, and it will save lives. So, make sure that you are contributing to the protection of the whole of Australia. The next is Casey from ABC.


G'day Professor Kelly. Just on the vaccine rollout, I'm interested in your view on how quickly Australia can ramp up rollout to the level that would enable everyone to be vaccinated by October? But I also just want to get you on your view on overseas rollouts, because there are global estimate that don't see widespread vaccination coverage in all countries until 2023, 2024, or even later. Is Australia looking at doing more to ensure that developing countries can get vaccinated quickly?

PAUL KELLY:       

Firstly, on Australia we have a very detailed plan. It has always depended on supply, has been our major issue, and the second thing is the full regulatory approval. So, we have the regulatory approval for both of our vaccines, the AZ vaccine as well as the Pfizer vaccine. Pfizer is coming from an international source. We have heard already, many times, about the constraint supply globally for many of the vaccines. The great advantage of the AZ vaccine of course is that it is locally made. As of this week it is now starting that final step of the fill and finish, putting it in the vials and getting it ready and packed to be distributed. So, we have a very strong supply of the AZ vaccine, that will ramp up into next month, and then a guaranteed supply within Australia which will be rapidly distributed and the plan that we have using the states and territories, GPs, and eventually pharmacists, as well as some- to distribute that right around Australia.

In terms of the global situation, yes, this is a global pandemic, it needs a global response. We need to consider what that looks like in every country, because if the COVID virus is still in any country it's still potentially in every country, because of the global movement of people. So, yes, we have our responsibility particularly in the Pacific, and there have been several announcements recently including today about our support to the Pacific, and into Southeast Asia, and more broadly in their global COVAX initiative. For example, us joining up has supported the whole world in relation to that global supply.

The final question from Paul Karp at The Guardian?


Thanks Professor Kelly. The TGA advised yesterday that the efficacy of AstraZeneca is 82 per cent in a 12-week gap between doses. Is that true also for the new variants like the South African and the UK strain? And if there is lower effectiveness against those strains, how will that affect the rollout?

PAUL KELLY:       

So, the 82 per cent is based on the information that's come from the phase three trials, and those phase three trials of the AZ vaccine took place in South Africa and the UK and Brazil. And so, it has looked at those three countries where we know there have been variants of concern. But mostly it was based on information that happened before those variants were widespread in those countries. So, that 82 per cent is the average across the viruses that caused illness during those phase three trials. And that's for any type of illness.

More important, we know that for the AstraZeneca vaccine, and that includes in the variants of concern that we know of so far, is that that severe end of the spectrum is not affected. We don't have any information at the moment that shows that the AstraZeneca is less effective in those variants of concern. Now, data is coming every day and we may see that, but at the moment that is the case. What we need to do is to get those vaccines out as soon as possible, either the AstraZeneca vaccine or the Pfizer vaccine, because they are both very strongly effective at saving lives, and that's our absolutely number one perspective at the moment.

So, I think I will leave it there, thank you very much for your questions, and more to come.


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