Date published: 
8 June 2021
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

JOHN LAWS:          

Well, yesterday morning, the program was hijacked by my old sparring partner, Clive Palmer, the former politician, the current businessman and the apparent infectious diseases expert. He's a character that one. Citing a document published by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the weekly vaccine safety report, he made outrageous claims about the coronavirus vaccine, basically saying it was killing people and that the Government should stop the rollout. He really did represent misrepresent the facts and the figures. And when I bought this to his attention, he insisted and continued to argue that the TGA was lying. And I don't think that's a very good thing to say. So, to get some clarified information and we do need to have some clarified information, I'm delighted to say Professor John Skerritt from the TGA joins me hopefully on the line. Professor, are you there?

JOHN SKERRITT: 

Yes. Good morning, John.

JOHN LAWS:          

Good morning, Professor. And thank you for giving us some of your time. Are the coronaviruses vaccines safe?

JOHN SKERRITT: 

They have been thoroughly assessed for safety and effectiveness. As people know, there's a very rare chance of side effects with both vaccines. But these are a few in a million. And so, for 99.99999 per cent of people, these are very safe vaccines. They - in some people, probably 30 or 40 per cent, will give you a sore arm, fatigue, nausea. Some people even have to end up in bed for a day. But that's a small price to pay compared with protection against coronavirus.

JOHN LAWS:          

Well, you said it very clearly and very well, you're quite right. Do the vaccines cause death? No?

JOHN SKERRITT: 

Well, we have one death that seems to have been associated, sadly, very early on with a clotting syndrome related to the AstraZeneca vaccine. We now have a better handle on detecting that early and also in treating it. So, what was misleading from what Mr Palmer said was that the vaccine was responsible for 210 deaths. That is simply absolutely not true.

JOHN LAWS:          

Well, that's refreshing to know. Did that person who did die, the one death that we're talking about, did that person have some underlying condition as well?

JOHN SKERRITT: 

They did, John. Now, obviously, for personal confidentiality, patient confidentiality reasons we don't want to go into detail on. And it was very sad on the other condition she had. But it was also very [indistinct] in the piece when doctors and haematologists and intensive care doctors globally, were still coming to terms with this condition.

And we've learnt a lot more about it and they pick it up much earlier. And indeed, the overwhelming majority of the very small number who have had this clotting syndrome have been released from hospital in their home and they're doing well.

JOHN LAWS:          

Okay. I understand all that and that's good news. Very good news. But the person that died did have an underlying condition as such?

JOHN SKERRITT: 

Underlying condition. But we do believe that in that one case, the vaccine was associated with her very sad death.

JOHN LAWS:          

Yes. Well, people are going to ask the question simply, do the vaccines cause death? Well, it would appear they could.

JOHN SKERRITT: 

So, very rarely, and this is the case with any medicine, in fact, even Panadol, paracetamol over - every year, there's a couple of dozen deaths that are associated with what is Australia's most common medicine. So, everything we do in life, including taking medicines and vaccines, has some risk. There is no medicine or vaccine that is absolutely free of risk. And what we're looking at here are the risks versus the benefits. And I only have to remind people with the current outbreak in Victoria, we have three people in aged care who have tested positive for coronavirus.

But guess what? They're all doing very well because each of them has been vaccinated. Now, had they not had the vaccine, there could be quite a different outcome. We remember only last year with a number of deaths in aged care. So, vaccination remains the most important tool in getting on top of the coronavirus pandemic.

JOHN LAWS:          

Okay. Well, it's very important we get on top of it, but you're aware of that and you're doing everything in your power to do something about it. There are side effects for just about every vaccine out there.

JOHN SKERRITT: 

There are. And also, medicines. And part of the - and I know I've had my first AstraZeneca shot and the doctor took me inside, probably didn't know what my role was and explained the side effects before I was vaccinated. So, vaccination is not mandatory in Australia. There's informed consent. But again, the advice from the Government and from health professionals is that the benefits very significantly outweigh the risks.

JOHN LAWS:          

Yes. Well, I had the AstraZeneca and my friend John Williamson, and neither of us affected. And I think even the Mother Superior here had it, no effect at all. So really, it's just sensible to have it, isn't it?

JOHN SKERRITT: 

It's sensible to have it, because not only whether you're of a certain age, which you and I may well be, John, but also for the younger people. And you've got to remember that in Australia, the largest group who have been infected with coronavirus are actually the people in their 20s. But for them, even though they may not get particularly ill, they're doing it for their parents, their great aunty, the grandmothers, the lady- the little old lady in Woolworths or Coles, who they might stand next to in the queue. So, you're doing it for your community.

JOHN LAWS:          

Yeah, well, that's good to know. The report says that there were more than 20,000 reported adverse reactions following immunisation. Now, Clive Palmer would have us believe that they all had blood clots and there were deaths involved. That's not right, is it?

JOHN SKERRITT: 

No. So, to date, we've had just about 25,000 reports. And look, that's great because we have a very well-developed system in place where the states and territory health departments, the GPs, the companies and even individuals in the public can report these adverse events directly to us.

Now, the overwhelming majority are these minor, short lived adverse events, but our job is to look at every serious adverse event in detail and see if there's cause and effect. And in the overwhelming majority of cases, there is not cause and effect. I mean, sadly, we've got to remember in Australia, 150,000 people die every year, 3000 a week. And of course, most of those deaths are in the older populations.

And of course, so far, the biggest groups that have been vaccinated with the vaccines have been the over 60s, over 70s and over 80s because they were the initial Phase 1A. So, it's a sad fact that every year and every week and every day, a number of 80-year-olds and 75-year-olds die of various reasons.

JOHN LAWS:          

Have you- have you thought about contacting Clive Palmer and giving him some sound advice on the subject?

JOHN SKERRITT: 

I have written to Mr Palmer already on this. And really our advice is that public figures do have a responsibility not to undermine our health messages through spreading misleading information. Now, we hope that he will take that on board. We've also written to Broadcasters Radio Network, to their CEO, expressing our concerns about the messages that Mr Palmer had sponsored.

JOHN LAWS:          

And Mr Palmer yesterday said the TGA lied, fairly sweeping statements, and he inferred that all 200 deaths following inoculation were actually linked to the vaccine. There's no truth at all in those claims, is there?

JOHN SKERRITT: 

No truth whatsoever. So what hospitals report is that if someone has had, say, a vaccine on Monday, and they die on Thursday, they report the fact that they had recently been vaccinated. But they also could have had a cup of coffee. I don't want to sound flippant, but they could have had a cup of coffee, or gone to the football or watched the ABC News on Monday as well. And our job - and we have a team of doctors, as well as working closely with doctors through hospitals throughout the country - we have a team of doctors and disease detectives, epidemiologists who look at whether there's cause and effect. And as I've said to you, there's only been one case, and we take these cases also to a committee of external experts, so they don't have any rear ends to cover. And we've only found one case where we believe it's likely linked. Of the other 209, we do not believe there's a linkage.

JOHN LAWS:          

Professor, have you thought about having a talk to Mr Palmer or you know, they're dangerous untruths. I don't want to call them lies, because that's a bit strong. But-

JOHN SKERRITT: 

[Indistinct] he actually does have my mobile number. So I'd welcome the opportunity to talk about it with Clive, because he can only read into what his own motivations are. But as I've said before, individuals are entitled to their own views. But at a time when we have seen the fact that this virus has not gone, whether it's from Melbourne or whether it's from countries in our region, India, Southeast Asia and so forth, it's irresponsible, we believe, to undermine public health messages. We now have over 5 million people vaccinated, but we realise we've still got a way to go in vaccinating the entire Australian population, or anyone who wants to have the vaccine, John.

JOHN LAWS:          

Yeah, I see that I've got a caller waiting even as you and I are talking now, who wants to know whether the vaccine can cause infertility, can it?

JOHN SKERRITT: 

There's no evidence at all. So, I should also emphasise, again, despite what Mr Palmer said, we had a team of people, and I know because I was associated with them. We worked seven days a week for months and months, looking at tens of thousands of pages of data. Australia did a full evaluation of these products, both Pfizer and AstraZeneca. We looked at tens of thousands of pages of data right through from everything to impacts on reproduction, fertility and so forth. And there's no evidence that these vaccines cause infertility.

JOHN LAWS:          

Okay. What about the Press Council? Not just radio authorities, but the Press Council. Have they been cautioned about accepting Mr Palmer's paid advertisements in their papers? Has somebody said, well, hang on, you better be careful what you're accepting?

JOHN SKERRITT: 

We've been in contact with the Communications and Media Authority as well, as well as the ACCC. So we have, over the last 24, 36 hours, we've discussed this with a number of authorities. But as far as the TGA is concerned, as I say, I have written to Mr Palmer. And as I said, I'm- he has my phone number, my personal mobile number. So very happy to take a call from him and talk it through, because we don't think it is particularly helpful.

JOHN LAWS:          

No. Well, it isn't particularly helpful because it can concern people who simply don't know the facts and we don't want people confused about it. You know, it's a very, very important thing to do to get the vaccine, and we don't want people confused or concerned, unnecessarily.

JOHN SKERRITT: 

No. No, and I mean, it is a stressful time for Australians writ large, and it's a stressful time for the world. You know, none of us has had a pandemic of this sort in our lifetime. And, you know, I think things like the recent lockdown in Melbourne has shown that while Australia has done superbly well compared with other countries. I'm- we international regulators talk to our equivalents across the world several times a week. And when I talk to the British or the Europeans, the Americans, the Canadians, they keep on saying, what has Australia done so well? Your numbers are so low. But I think we must always be aware that, you know, coronavirus is a killer, even though we've had only 910 deaths. That's still 910 deaths due to this virus, and 3.7 million deaths worldwide. And that's a very sobering statistic and a very sad one. So, you know, the coronavirus, especially in people over 50 and 60, the death rate is even higher. In Australia, 99.5 per cent of all the people who have died are over 50. And so that's a bit of a warning that we can become complacent and vaccination is still the best way out of this pandemic.

JOHN LAWS:          

Yes, well said and we can become complacent. It's not a very wise thing to do. Look, your qualifications, not doubting them at all, but just tell us how qualified you are to be making these kind of assertions, which are very important to us and very relaxing for people who have got concerns about it? Just, if you could just reassure our listeners that you are eminently qualified - I know you are - and you're just speaking from knowledge, not supposition. I fear Mr Palmer is speaking from supposition, and that's all

JOHN SKERRITT: 

It's more about my team and I have over 70 medical doctors working for me and a couple of hundred PhDs. Personally, I'm a professor, an adjunct professor at three Australian universities, including in medicine and pharmacy. I have a PhD in pharmacology and I've worked in immunology, which is the science to do with antibodies and vaccines for over 15 years. And I've headed the TGA for nine years. So- but it's not about me, it's actually about the team that support us. But we have some of Australia's most qualified scientists working for us. We also have access - so, for example, with a clotting disorder, we were able to, literally over the weekend and over Easter, get a network of haematologists, blood specialists, who give their time freely to give us advice. So we [indistinct] in to some of Australia's most qualified doctors and scientists.

JOHN LAWS:          

Well, Professor John Skerritt, I think we're very lucky to have you. Very lucky to have you. And I thank you very much for giving us some of your time.

JOHN SKERRITT: 

Not a problem. Have a good day.

JOHN LAWS:          

And you, too. Goodbye.

Contact

Departmental media enquiries

Contact for members of the media

news [at] health.gov.au (subject: Media%20enquiry%20-%20News%20item%20ID23054, body: URL - https%3A%2F%2Fwww.health.gov.au%2Fnews%2Ftherapeutic-goods-administration-adj-professor-john-skerritts-interview-on-2sm-on-8-june-2021)

View contact