Date published: 
13 January 2021
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

PAUL KELLY:

Good afternoon everyone, Paul Kelly here from Canberra with an update on the COVID-19 situation here. So just going through the numbers first of all, another very good day in terms of the epidemiology of cases in Australia, only one locally acquired case in the last 24 hours, and there were 16 cases altogether, the rest in hotel quarantine, in those that had returned from overseas. Compare that with the rest of the world, what is happening in the rest of the world, 685,000 cases in the last 24 hours. 685,000 versus 16. And one- 16,000 deaths, more than 16,000 around the world. So many countries much worse off than us at the moment.

We've got 46 people in hospital, and I will just- just to talk a little bit about hospitalisations, almost all of those that are in hospital are there to isolate those cases from the rest of the community in a couple of states. That's their policy to do that. So, that's not necessarily a measure of disease severity. There's only one person in intensive care. We've seen in many countries in the world, intensive care units and hospitals totally overwhelmed, leading to the building of temporary wards and so forth in many countries. So, Australia is in a good position.

Just related to that, we have a definition of a hot spot at the Commonwealth, this is mostly to relate to Commonwealth support to states, particularly in aged care. So there's a range of measures we put in place once the Commonwealth hot spot is declared. I have done that as Chief Medical Officer twice. Once was on 18th December in relation to the Northern Beaches LGA in Sydney. So, today I'm revoking that hot spot definition on the basis of the fantastic work that has been done of course mainly by the community, in taking note of all the public health orders and the lockdown measures that have happened there over the last few weeks. But also to the tremendous work that's been done by the public health officials in New South Wales. So, that hot spot is revoked.

I did declare a hot spot in Brisbane last Friday, only in relation to the cleaner from the quarantine hotel and that abundance of caution because that cleaner has one of the- has been proven to have one of the new more transmissible strains, the B117 strain, which is now affecting six people in that cluster. I would say in relation to that, that all of those cases are in isolation, or quarantine, either- so four of those cases have come from overseas, the other two is the cleaner and her partner. But they're all isolated. The Queensland Health and Australia's most Experienced Chief Health Officer, Jeannette Young, was talking about that earlier today, and we talked about it again on- at AHPPC in the last hour or so. And of course we're putting in any supports that Queensland Health needs to deal with that particular issue, and all of the chief health officers in all of the states and territories are also standing by to assist.

So, in an abundance of caution, and we totally accept and agree and Jeanette's view on this- Dr Young's view, she will be contacting anyone who has been in that hotel during the period of concern, either staff or people who have arrived overseas, whilst they're working out how that UK strain, the B117 strain, may have spread between rooms, and also to the cleaner. Once they are working through, they'll be asking anyone that's been in that hotel, either as staff, or as people that have returned from overseas, to isolate and get tested. And then to- they'll be contacted by whichever public health authority of that state or territory they're in for further information and advice.

The other news item of the day, I guess, is in relation to the AstraZeneca vaccine and our vaccine program more generally. I have just been part of a briefing to the press and I see a couple of the people that were on that phone call here in the room, or online, on the phone. So, we gave a briefing about the vaccine strategy. And just to really be very clear about some of the claims that have been made by some people in relation to that AstraZeneca vaccine, so, I just want to be very clear about that. What we know about the AstraZeneca vaccine, it's one of the three vaccines that have had- published their interim results from their phase three clinical trials. That particular vaccine, the AstraZeneca vaccine, was published on 8 December. There is the article. I read it on the day it was published. It was more than a month ago. And many underlines there you will see. I know that data well. Some people have been taking particular parts of that article and not reading the whole article, in my view, about how effective it is, or isn't. So, I just want to be very clear - the AstraZeneca vaccine has several reasons why it's very important for our vaccine strategy. Firstly, it's being made here in Australia. There will be enough vaccine, very soon, in Australia, for Australians, to be able to vaccinate any Australian who wants to be vaccinated against COVID-19 this year. The AstraZeneca is here; we don't need to queue for that. That's being made in CSL right now, in Melbourne.

Second of all, it is very effective against severe illness. It will save lives. By using this vaccine, we'll be able to protect a large proportion of the population in Australia, whoever wants to have that. We also have 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, that will probably be the first to get the full tick from TGA, we expect that very soon within the next few weeks. And we'll be able to start our vaccine program with the Pfizer vaccine as was announced by the Prime Minister last week. And so that Pfizer vaccine, very important, that's our priority groups. We'll be starting there, with our quarantine workers, border workers, those at highest risk of exposure, as well as our healthcare workforce, our aged care workforce, and then moving into aged care itself as our most vulnerable Australians, the most vulnerable to severe illness. So, I think I will leave it there and ask for questions. Start with you first, Claire.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, two questions if I may. The first regarding vaccine hesitancy. To what extent is that a concern for yourself and medical officials, and what are the major risks in potentially pushing people away from getting a vaccine when it's approved?

PAUL KELLY:

So, yes, confidence is absolutely key here. We know that in vaccination programs broadly and in general, for many years, Australians have been great- they have been great at taking up the offers of vaccination for our children and more widely in the population. And we know that confidence is absolutely key to that. There are some people that just don't believe in vaccination. We can't convince them that the anti-vaxxer group is- as they are. We know the majority of Australians are in favour of vaccination generally and our surveys that we've done in relation to the COVID vaccine have been very positive in that regard. There is a group, though, in between those two extremes, if you like, where confidence is absolutely the most important thing. And that's what worries me about the coverage we've had today in relation to the AstraZeneca vaccine. People will be nervous, of course, and we need to give more information and we're doing that. So, yes, I am worried, and worried about the selective use of the data that we have, those interim results from particular studies back in November. And just to absolutely put it on the table today, that the TGA will go through all of the things they need to do, all of the usual checks and balances, and it's only when they have finished that full approval process that the- any vaccine will be available in Australia, including the AstraZeneca and the Pfizer vaccines. So, people should be confident about safety, being our first priority, and efficacy being the second. And the quality of the vaccination- of the vaccine production also being crucial. And we're working through all of the other issues around training our workforce, getting the logistics right, making sure the information is collected about who has had which vaccine when and where, as well as any side effects that may happen as we roll the vaccine out.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

And if I may, sorry, Queensland mentioned this morning that they would be bringing to AHPPC new ideas to deal with the more virulent British strain of COVID after it spread in a hotel there. Are you available to elaborate on what idea was brought forward or what the process may be for changing how we deal with hotel quarantine?

PAUL KELLY:

So, at national cabinet last week I was in the room when the Prime Minister and the chief ministers and Premiers of all the states talked about strengthening our arrivals process. And I would say an end to end approach to that from before people leave another country to come to Australia, so that pre-flight testing concept there, and only people that are negative will be able to fly, right through safe flights, in terms of infection prevention and control through that process, on arrival in airports in Australia, and so, mask wearing in particular will be compulsory in all airports, both domestic and international, in relation to that. But then the end to end in the quarantine process, the transport to the hotel. Because we've seen transport workers- a transport worker in New South Wales become positive in recent times, through the whole process of whilst people are in hotel quarantine. And we've seen those issues emerge this week in Queensland in relation to that, the cleaning process after people leave. So, all of those processes are being looked at and will be looked at to see what else we can do in relation to those procedures.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Professor, it sounds like you're hoping or expecting the AstraZeneca result will be much higher than 60 or 70 per cent. Could you actually explain, I guess, what the difference would be, in general terms, on a vaccine that has 70 per cent versus one that has 95 per cent? Are we talking about quite a significant difference in terms of like a health effective, how good it is? Or is it kind of a choice between a very good vaccine and a very, very, very good one?

PAUL KELLY:

So, they're both good. And so, a couple of things I'd say there - the World Health Organisation, this was in agreement among experts, their bar that they wanted all COVID vaccines to exceed is 50 per cent. So, 62 per cent, 70.4 per cent, 90 per cent, 94.5 per cent and 95 per cent, so those are all the percentages for AstraZeneca and their two different ways of giving the vaccine. Pfizer and Moderna, are all above 50. So, these are all very good vaccines in terms of efficacy for symptomatic illness. All of the three vaccines that have so far published their data in peer viewed journals - so that's AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna - all show a very significant effect against severe illness. Basically, they're all extremely good against- protecting against severe illness and death. That's why I say that lives will be saved by the AstraZeneca vaccine, I have no doubt about that.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Speaking of that interim between 70 and 95 per cent, how much- obviously that's 25 per cent, but in terms of actual response, what does that mean?

PAUL KELLY:

So, that's to be determined. I'd say that we've got those results from the interim trials and we will see how it works in the Australian context, over this year. We're in a very different phase in the pandemic. But one thing that's against us, in a way, is we've had so few cases in Australia. So there would be very few people with the immunity that comes from having had the illness. So, in many ways, Australia is at more risk from than point of view. So therefore, it's more important to rollout as much vaccine as we can, as quickly as we can. And so that's actually the counterfactual here. It's not whether one is better or the other. What do we have available? We have the AstraZeneca available for the whole country in Australia.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Why do we not have a contract to supply the Moderna vaccine?

PAUL KELLY:

So, we're continuing our continuing our conversations with Moderna and a range of countries- companies - around a dozen companies, I believe, at the moment we're in active negotiations with, we're open to get more vaccine. But-

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Should we have that now though? Shouldn't it- wasn't it- wouldn't it be better to have a contract with Moderna in place like we have with Pfizer? We can't manufacture an mRNA vaccine in Australia? We can't make them here; we're relying on overseas supply. Shouldn't we have a contract with Moderna in place now, given it's the other promising candidate?

PAUL KELLY:

It's a very promising candidate. David, I put it to you that a contract takes two parties to sign.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Were they not willing to share any of their supply with Australia?

PAUL KELLY:

They- we have continued conversations with Moderna, and- but it needs their agreement to sign such a contract. I'll leave it there, but a lot of these issues are commercial in confidence and I can't really talk to them.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

And what about Johnson & Johnson, which is another possibility? Were they unwilling to make anything available to Australians?

PAUL KELLY:

So, Johnson & Johnson have applied for a provisional designation. They're going through the pathway for approval in Australia. In terms of contracts of pre-purchasing agreements, again I'm not at liberty to talk in detail. But there were issues we were not able to agree on with Johnson & Johnson, which was mainly in their court.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Sorry, did they not have enough supply for us?

PAUL KELLY:

It wasn't a supply matter. But I can't talk in more detail about that, but we were unable to reach agreement with Johnson & and Johnson.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Is it still up for negotiation or is that sort of off the table now?

PAUL KELLY: That's off the table at the moment. Yeah.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

You mentioned about, I guess, the selective reading of data. The people who raised these concerns are not crack pots, conspiracy theorists, they're not even coalition backbenchers, for instance. They're doctors, they're scientists [Indistinct]. What do you say to them for putting it out there? You know, when people like Raina McIntyre, not to single her out, but she's become a very high-profile person in this debate, when they talk about these things, people believe them. What do you, sort of, say against that sort of view?

PAUL KELLY:

Sure. So, I've known Raina for many, many years. We've been close colleagues over time. We have had our disagreements in relation to the way these things should work, and she's entitled to her views. The- We have - the main group that is advising the government on this is the ATAGI group, it's the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation. That's been present for many, many years, not just for COVID vaccine, but for all vaccines and immunisation programs. They're the ones responsible for writing the Australian guidelines on immunisation. They are handpicked experts who advise the Minister for Health. Many of those are prominent people you would have heard of, Allen Cheng being probably one of the more prominent ones, who's the co-chair of the committee. So, they're our experts. They've been involved with all the information around the vaccines right throughout. We have another group called SITAG, which is the Scientific and Industry Technical Advisory Group. That's been formed for the COVID vaccines because of the complexity of all these matters that we are discussing today. They are also very helpful with their opinions and so forth. They- both of those groups have been absolutely key in the advice to government about the pre-purchasing agreements, and other elements of the vaccine rollout. And so, those are the ones that we rely on and I would suggest that people listen to those experts.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Can I follow up on Andrew's question - I write for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, we wrote the story today about the questions over the AstraZeneca vaccine, I'm proud to work for those two papers. Our stories clearly said the vaccine works and clearly said the vaccine is safe. Isn't there - the question is about whether its efficacy rate is as good as the Pfizer vaccine. Now isn't there a fair public debate to be had about whether one vaccine is a better option than another?

PAUL KELLY: 

It is if we can have one or the other soon enough to make a difference. So, I'll say to you we've had so few cases in Australia over the last year compared with many other countries that we are essentially completely non-immune. The choice is not whether one is better that then other, it's which one is available to give the maximum rollout of vaccine to save lives and to protect lives this year. And the answer to that is the one we can make here, as you've mentioned already. We don't have the ability to make mRNA vaccine onshore. We did have- we have made the ability to make the AstraZeneca vaccine, as a different version of essentially getting to the same end point. We've got that through CSL. So we have those doses on shore. We're not in any queue for those. I will go to the phone, you've been very patient. So Daniel Sutton from Channel Ten.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Sorry about that delay. My headphones just fell out. Thanks for taking the call. You're aware of the criticism that's been levelled today about the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines. Is- we've obviously put a lot more money and resources into that AstraZeneca vaccine. Just simply, have we backed the only horse we could, but is it still a lesser horse, if that makes sense?

PAUL KELLY:

So, I have had discussions about horses being backed and eggs in baskets today, so either one of those works. I think we have backed many horses. Our have several eggs in the basket. We have, from the beginning, looked for a diversified portfolio of vaccines. We chose one mRNA vaccine on the basis of the advice of the committee, as I mentioned before that that was the best option. That was the Pfizer vaccine in the mRNA group. We- several months ago, and even now, the AstraZeneca is an example of the viral vector technology. Both of those are extremely novel, new technologies for making vaccines for humans. So we took one of those, the AstraZeneca. We had a protein vaccine, protein vaccines are much more traditional way of making vaccines, but they're slower. And we have the UQ vaccine, and for reasons we have discussed here before, we've had to pull out of that agreement because of issues in relation to the UQ vaccine. But we have always- we always had a backup in the Novavax vaccine, another protein vaccine. And that's showing very strong performance and quicker than we had thought. We are likely to get the full dossier in relation to the data for that vaccine before the middle of the year. So that would be another option later in the year for us, hopefully.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Just a follow-up, if I could Professor, I guess based on the information you've got now, if you could have unlimited access to the Pfizer vaccine, would you be happy to have that as our primary vaccine for all Australian citizens? It's just that you don't clearly have that option because we're limited in terms of numbers?

PAUL KELLY:

Well I think it's pointless having that sort of hypothetical debate. We've got what we've got and we've got the AstraZeneca and it is effective enough particularly for severe illness. But also for efficacy against illness altogether to be of great value, and the fact that we can make it in Australia is really the trump card.

Just to finish off their Daniel, we do also have the COVAX facility, that's something we signed up to last year. That's had two elements to it, one is us contributing to vaccines for the rest of the world, but it also allows us the opportunity to bid, if you like, from within the COVAX facility, which now has hundreds of millions of doses of different types of vaccines, up to- to cover up to 50 per cent of our population. So, we are putting in those bids. It may well be that they have Pfizer and they have Moderna, they have AstraZeneca, they have J and J and others in that group. So we'll be able to access from that source as well.

Paul Karp is on for the Guardian.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Thanks very much. Can you please give us an update on whether Ivermectin is an effective treatment and prevention for coronavirus, and is it responsible for a government MP to promote it as such? And secondly, do you foresee Australia needing to do a second run of vaccinations with Pfizer or something else so that we don't have two classes of Australians, those that got AstraZeneca and those that got another vaccine with greater efficacy?

PAUL KELLY:

So to do the last one first. We are embarking on a long term journey in relation to vaccination against COVID. We have no evidence yet about how long any of the vaccines, including the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine, last in terms of immunity. The main reason for that is they're brand new vaccines and we haven't had the follow-up data that we would normally have in relation to that. So, I don't know how long these ones will last, any of the vaccines that we have in our portfolio.

What I will say is that there's also no evidence that you cannot- too many negatives there, the positive is we can follow up with any of the other vaccines next year, once they become available. And more will be able to us in 2022 than is currently the case. I have a very strong feeling that Novavax or one of the other protein vaccines will be the long-term option for vaccination for the world, but they, as I said, take longer to be manufactured and longer therefore for the data to come through about safety, quality, and efficacy. So we have these rapid new versions but we don't know about the long term element for that.

In terms of Ivermectin, I was actually involved as a researcher in early clinical trials in relation to Ivermectin and river blindness in Africa. And so it definitely works against river blindness or otherwise known as onchocerciasis. It has uses in many other parasitic diseases, including scabies and we're using that in the Northern Territory. There is no evidence at the moment that it has any benefit or any use in relation to the prevention or treatment of COVID-19. In terms of what backbenchers from one side of Parliament or the other say, that's a matter for them.

So, Steph Dalzell is from the ABC.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Thanks, Professor. Thanks for taking our question. Professor Cheng tweeted that if you were in charge of that vaccine manufacturer, would you send your supplies to countries where there are thousands of deaths a day, or would you send your supplies to Australia? Is Australia's success in navigating the pandemic partially play into why we've only secured a limited number of doses of Pfizer's vaccine?

PAUL KELLY:

So we have the doses that we have on the basis of the contractual negotiations we made many months ago with that particular company. We posed to question to them, how much vaccine could you give us in the first half of 2021, and they gave us an answer, and then we negotiated on the price. And that answer was 10 million. And we are continuing and having many, many conversations with them, not only in relation to the TGA's conversations on regulation and making sure that the data is coming, but also any possibility that we could increase that number. At the moment, that is what it is. And frankly, there are other countries in the world that need it more than we do right now.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Professor Kelly, can I also just follow up on Paul's question about Craig Kelly, a man with the same name but a different view. You said that opinions of backbenchers are a matter for them, however you have been quite outspoken about opinions of doctors today. Craig Kelly is a member of government. He has also said that Betadine could be 84 per cent effective in reducing the number of COVID-19 hospitalisations. He published a study that hasn't been peer reviewed, saying that masks were akin to a crime, tantamount to child abuse. Are you frustrated with the messaging that he's sending out on social media?

PAUL KELLY:

Well firstly he's no relation, I can absolutely guarantee that. He needs to decide what is the appropriate thing for a member of Parliament to be commenting on. I'm not going to talk further about this. Because it just gives prominence to views that I just don't agree with and are not scientifically based.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Could I give a follow-up question on that?

PAUL KELLY:

Sure.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Given Paul Karp has asked about Ivermectin I think there's a logical question. Is it- are there any grounds to tell Australians that hydroxychloroquine is a viable treatment for COVID-19?

PAUL KELLY:

So there have been many studies in the use of hydroxychloroquine and in fact early on there was some hope in terms of that and there were some small studies done for treatment in France. But subsequently there have been many, many studies on hydroxychloroquine for both treatment and for prevention of COVID-19. And at this point there is no evidence that it is useful for either of those things.

I'll just go to Natasha Robinson from The Australian.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

Thank you Professor Kelly. Just in relation to the supply of the Pfizer vaccine, why is it that the EU, given that Pfizer is doubling their production and the EU just negotiated 300 million extra doses for themselves, why is it that Australia can't get more doses of Pfizer? It does seem that other countries are currently getting more when they're negotiating with Pfizer.

PAUL KELLY:

So, as I said, we're in virtually constant discussion with Pfizer. If there were more doses available to us, then we would look into whether that was a feasible option for us to get more. So far that is not the case. I'd put it to you that the EU has also pre-purchased 400 million doses of AstraZeneca. The US has pre-purchased 300 million doses of AstraZeneca and the UK 100 million doses of AstraZeneca. So we're not an outlier there. Brazil, similarly, hundreds of millions of doses have been pre-purchased. Many other countries right throughout the world have done that. And in the UK AstraZeneca is being used. So back to the previous point about what can be used in this case. AstraZeneca has its place. It will save lives and we have plenty of it here, plenty to give two doses to the entire population of Australia during 2021.

JOURNALIST QUESTION:

But why is it that other countries can get more and we can't?

PAUL KELLY:

I don't have an answer to that I'm sorry. And I think I'm going to have to leave it there. Thanks very much for your interest.

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