Chief Medical Officer’s press conference about COVID-19 on 10 January 2021

Read the transcript of Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly's press conference about COVID-19 on 10 January 2021.

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PAUL KELLY: ...contrast between the rest of the world and Australia as we often do at these press conferences. So globally, over 89 million cases since the beginning of the pandemic. In the last 24 hours alone, almost three quarters of a million cases and over 12,000 deaths, making a total of almost 2 million deaths so far.

Let's contrast that with the Australian situation. In the last 24 hours, we've had 13 cases of which only three of those all in New South Wales are locally acquired. Zero cases in Queensland, zero cases in Victoria, in fact zero cases in seven out of eight jurisdictions in Australia. We've not had a death from someone who was acutely sick with COVID-19 since October. So there are very different situations here. In terms of hospitalisations, here in Australia, 41 people are in hospital. In many other countries, the hospitals and intensive care units are absolutely full, and deaths are mind-boggling. In the UK in the last 24 hours, over 1000 deaths. In the US, over 4000. My sister lives in a small village in northern Italy. I was speaking to her yesterday, or had texts from her yesterday, where she was talking about the church in her village, small village. The bells are tolling for deaths almost every day and almost the whole day, just in a small village in Italy. So that's what the situation is out there in the world right now. In Australia, we're doing much better than that. So I think they're important things.

We've known about the B117 strain, the strain that started in the UK but has now spread to many other parts of the world, and we are seeing those in our hotel quarantine system. Together with other more infectious strains that have emerged in other countries. This is becoming a reality for us. After National Cabinet, when I was with the Prime Minister, he talked through the measures we are doing to increase and improve our containment measures in relation to hotel quarantine, in relation to people coming from overseas, so the pre-flight testing, the testing of aircrew, wearing of masks on all planes, both internationally and domestically. These are just extra rings of containment so that we can make sure we are remaining one of the safest countries in the world in terms of COVID-19. So these are extra issues. And of course the vaccine rollout which will be starting very soon in Australia, once we have that full approval from the TGA, will be another one of those things we can do to protect Australia.

So most notably in the last 24 hours, a huge amount of testing in those three jurisdictions which have reported locally- local chains of transmission. So over 73,000 tests. It really is extraordinary how people have come out when that information is given, and really, hats off to everyone involved with that, including the community, but also the people that are putting themselves on the front line there to take those tests, those that are working absolutely full-time and right through the night sometimes in the laboratories to get that crucial information to guide our public health people who are doing that test, trace and isolate component, that really key component of the public health response. So fantastic work in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria in particular, but all of my colleagues on AHPPC, we are still meeting every day. We are all supporting each other, giving good advice and taking that advice to make sure that we're working as a nation to deal with this problem. So I'll pass to in the room for questions, thanks.

QUESTION: So Professor, how critical will uptake of this vaccine be if we are to return to a pre-COVID normal?

PAUL KELLY: So, vaccine, as I say, is one of the issues that we have. Of course, we still have all of those other containment measures, and they will need to continue for some time. There will be a time sometime this year where we will have reached a certain amount of vaccination in the community where we might be able to adjust some of those settings, but at least for the next few months, all of those things we've been saying, maybe people are getting bored with it now after a year about good hand hygiene, wash your hands, make sure you cough or sneeze safely, if you're sick stay at home, if you're sick get a test, that 1.5 metre-distancing, and all of those things that we've talking about, some of those restrictions, unfortunately, in the way we go about our daily lives, will have to continue for some time. The border measures will have to continue for some time. But as we get more vaccinations into the community, that will improve.

We know that we have our priority groups that we are trying to get to first, and that's important to think about that. The first priority is those that are at higher risk of exposure to the virus. So at this stage, that still is actually the people that are working at our borders, the people working in our quarantine hotels, the nurses and other medical- other health professionals that are working in those settings. The cleaners, the transport workers that are transporting people to our quarantine hotels. They are the ones that are at highest exposure, so we need to get that vaccination out to them quickly. They are right on the top of the list. Same with our healthcare workers that are working at our hospitals and other frontline areas. They are at higher risk of exposure. And then the other group, the other important priority group is those that are more likely to get severe infections, so that's the older people in our community and particularly those in residential aged care.

This is what's happening in the rest of the world, when you look at other places that have had to make that really difficult decision to start using the vaccine early before the full approval has been done, and so in those countries, we now have the advantage to be able to watch and wait what happens in those mass distributions that are happening in the US, in the United Kingdom, in Europe and many other countries now, but they have had to make that because of the situation they're in, and so that's that. In terms of where we're heading, every time we give a vaccine, that's another person who is protected from

COVID-19. It starts to look at locking those chains of transmission, so it will have an effect in that way as well as that personal protection.

QUESTION: We've seen some news today from the Health Minister about a new advertising campaign that's going to be rolled out as, I guess, before the vaccine is rolled out. What do you hope to achieve with that advertising campaign?

PAUL KELLY: Well, the most crucial component of any vaccine rollout, not just COVID-19, remember, we've done this before, we use a lot of immunisations in Australia, and Australians are rightly confident of the immunisation procedures that we do, before immunisations are used, and understanding how important immunisation is, particularly for our children. So that's something we're very used to, and Australia has a very high immunisation rate, right throughout the community. The crucial component of that is confidence in the system, so we need to build confidence in this particular vaccine. Of course, there has been a lot of interest and discussion about it. The approvals and such have gone fast, much faster than usual, for a reason - because of that danger that we are in and trying to get back to some sort of normal life. But absolutely, and I'll say this again, as we've said many times, there are no shortcuts. Every tick that needs to be ticked will be ticked before there is any rollout of this vaccine into the community.

So a lot of the campaign will be about that, making sure people are confident. People are also understanding some of the practicalities - who is first in the queue and why, and where those queues might form. So where can you get your vaccine if I'm in this particular group? Where do I go? So it's those sort of practical things. But confidence is the key first.

QUESTION: And we've seen, sort of, I guess maybe a shift slightly in targeting some more tailored messages to groups, whether that be migrants or whether that be different subsets of the community. Why is that approach being taken?

PAUL KELLY: Well, it's very important that everyone gets the message in an appropriate language, in their own language, and not only in their own language but in appropriate words, and we know that there are some parts of the community who are more hesitant about vaccines. We need to definitely address them directly, and that's really important. Look, in the end, we want as many people as possible to have this vaccine, starting with those priority groups but then moving into the general population, and so the more people that can be vaccinated, the better. I'll go to the phone now.

QUESTION:  Yeah, thank you, Professor. I had two questions actually, if that's okay. I wanted to ask first on the AstraZeneca vaccine, which seems to be the one that we're basing much of our vaccine rollout on. There's various numbers effectiveness going around from studies. One study in December said effectiveness(*) from 62 per cent to 90 per cent, depending on dosage, [indistinct]… effectiveness to(*) stopping transmission, versus [indistinct]… symptoms. Are effectiveness rate do you expect the AstraZeneca vaccine to have in Australia? And are we looking at that 1.5 dosage measure as was covered in that December study?

PAUL KELLY: So, the AstraZeneca vaccine is one of the key components of our strategy, and the reason for that is we're making it here. So whilst the Pfizer vaccine will be the one that we'll get first, most likely, and we know that that's well advanced, in terms of the data that they're giving to the TGA, our regulator in this regard, and it's the one that will have the most experience around the world; it was the first to get the emergency use authorisation in the US, UK and other places. So Pfizer's first, but it is being made overseas. There is a limited supply that we'll be getting of the Pfizer vaccine, whereas for the AstraZeneca vaccine, it's being made in CSL right now in Melbourne, and it's well advanced. So we'll be getting large supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine. So that is the one we will have available for most people during this year, is the AstraZeneca vaccine.

So in terms of its effectiveness, what we have so far is interim results from their phase three trials; that was published in the [indistinct] in early December, and that's what I've seen, the same as you have, Josh. But what the regulators will get is a much more fulsome set of data from AstraZeneca when they are ready to give it, and so our estimate is they will be ready to give that information that we need, that the TGA needs, to make that decision in February. And so once we have that, that's when we will be able to answer exactly your questions about what is the actual dose that should be used. The ones that have given emergency use authorisation to AstraZeneca have gone with the full dose twice, two doses at the full dose. There is part of the information, as you say, from that study, showed that perhaps a half dose first and a full dose second may be more beneficial, but that remains to be seen. They are interim data. People should be very wary about making decisions or suggestions about that particular vaccine as being less effective on the basis of interim data from one study. I think we should wait for the regulator to do their full work. Do you have another question, Josh?

QUESTION:  Yeah, and thank you for clarifying that on that data, by the way. The second question and I think the follow-up on the first question you answered in the room a second ago, considering the different phases of the vaccine rollout in the roadmap announced last week, at what stage do you believe there might be the opportunity for easing some of those major restrictions on gatherings? Say for instance, large cultural events. But I know yourself and the PM have said that we'd have to remain COVID-safe all year, but would we see an opportunity of easing some of those big rules after, say, Stage 2 when the high risk groups are covered or would that be further in the year? Think past Stage 2, past Stage 3 perhaps.

PAUL KELLY: Look, it's a bit hard to tell exactly now. It will depend on the take-up, it will depend on the epidemiology both here in Australia and overseas. Large events is one of those things to consider, but opening the borders and getting back to normal economic and social norms more broadly would also be part of that. When will people be able to move around in other ways around the country? All of those things will be factors. I can't look into my crystal ball on that one, I'm afraid. But I will go back to the comment I did make: every single vaccine we give, every single person that gets their two doses of vaccine and gets that very strong protection against severe illness will give people more confidence, will give the public health system more confidence, will give our politicians that need to make these decisions in the end more confidence about what a COVID-safe normal might look like in the second half of this year.

QUESTION:  Thank you so much for taking my questions. I also just have two quick ones. Is there any update as to when Brisbane will no longer be considered a hot spot? And I was also interested to know whether or not there's been(*) any health concerns relating to sort of increased [indistinct] around the way that border closures are announced.

PAUL KELLY: So I will come back to the second question shortly. In terms of the hotspot, so, we have two declared hotspots from the Commonwealth point of view, recognising that states have their own versions of what hotspots are. And I must say, talking to my colleagues in the last couple of days around the way they're looking at hotspots, I'm very pleased to see, as the Prime Minister announced on Friday, there is - for most states - working towards a hotspot rather than a whole state approach, and I think it's very pleasing. They will make their own decisions based on protecting their own communities, as they should, in relation to what would trigger a hotspot. But for example, the Northern Territory and Tasmania have for some time been looking at hotspots in terms of a small geographic area of concern, making rapid decisions about declaring and undeclaring hotspots, having a three-tiered approach to risk. I think that all of those things are very welcome.

In terms of the Commonwealth hotspot, we do have and have had for some time, the definition in relation to the number of cases over a 3-day rolling average as well as a geographic area. So we have the hotspot declared for the Northern Beaches of Sydney, and I've asked my staff to look at that and when we might remove that definition for that place. I think for at least a couple of weeks now, there've been very few cases because of the lockdown; that's now been released by and reduced by New South Wales Health as of midnight last night. So in the coming days, we'll certainly be making some announcements about that.

In terms of the Brisbane one, we made a specific decision because of the high risk in relation to this B117 strain, which was related to the cleaner in Brisbane, as well as the high mobility in the country. I know five close colleagues that have been in Brisbane during that period just in my own workplace. So many people have been to Brisbane and come back to other states. So that was the way we decided on Friday to come in behind the Queensland Health decision, in relation to Brisbane being a hotspot. Let's see what happens in the next 36 hours around that contact tracing exercise as to whether we can also remove that one. And the second part of your question, Jennifer?

QUESTION: Yeah, it was just around- in terms of the way that border closures are announced and the sort of increased mobility(*) that we see ahead of those cut-off deadlines. Is that causing any health concerns at all?

PAUL KELLY: Yeah, so, I see what you mean. I certainly saw that footage as well of a lot of people leaving Brisbane in that period. Look, that's a challenge in terms of if you go too fast, that becomes incredibly inconvenient for people, if you go too slow, you risk having not the full effect. Let's see what happens in this Brisbane experience, as we've done all the way through. We will be learning from that particular experience, and that may give us some clues. But there's no simple answer to that question. I think once you delimit(*) people's mobility it's a challenge, and it's about risk and benefit. Okay. Last one in the room?

QUESTION: What would be your message to people who may be looking to social media for their information on vaccines and may be steering away from the government information. What would you say to them?

PAUL KELLY: Well, of course, people need to make their own choice about where they get information from, and we're in a democracy here where various views are put out. But I would, and I've stressed this before, I think if you look at what's happened in the last 12 months, I think Australians have enormous trust in the official views, and we're very open whenever any information comes, we do talk at press conferences like this and other information on official websites, both the Australian Government as well as state and territory governments. And I would really urge people to take note of that. Of course, you need to look at other things and other opinions, that's part of a democracy. But we've been very open and clear, I hope, through the last 12 months, and we certainly, with the vaccine, will be trying to do that as well. And we absolutely will be telling people everything they need to know about the vaccine in the coming weeks and months. It's a very exciting time. It's a huge logistic and implementation issue that we're embarking on, but we thought this would be way further down the track than it is. And so the fact that we're talking about this only 12 months after the discovery of this new virus is a remarkable achievement, and Australia will be joining other parts of the world with vaccines very shortly, but only once that tick comes from the TGA.


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