The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
19 December 2021
Topics: PBS heart disease medication, Medical research funding, COVID-19 Boosters, Netherlands lockdown, international vaccines, restrictions
Well, welcome everybody. I want to thank everybody for joining us today. We have important announcements in relation to medical research. In relation to both COVID and non-COVID measures. The listing of new heart medicines and the updating relation to COVID, which myself and Dr Sonya Bennett, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, will provide.
I particularly want to start today by acknowledging the terrible loss and just the immense, almost unimaginable sadness, that the parents, the friends, the families, all of those who have been affected by the tragedy at Hillcrest primary, and more broadly across Devonport will be feeling.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced the mental health and broader support for the families, for the community, and for the first responders in Devonport. We’ll continue to work with the Tasmanian Government and if more support is needed, more will be provided immediately. So, we’ll continue to engage as we have with Gavin Pearce, the local member, with Jeremy Rockworth, with – the Deputy Premier and Health Minister, the Prime Minister working with the Premier and others.
But, this loss, I think, has just shocked people right around Australia, and we just want to provide our support. And it reminds us all to hold our children close this Christmas.
One of the things we’ve done throughout the pandemic, is continue to focus on pandemic research, but all of our research tasks. And I’m very pleased this morning to be able to announce that under the Medical Research Future Fund, we’ll continue that work and open new grant rounds for $276 million of medical research across 12 areas.
And those areas include $20 million for respiratory disease research. COVID will be a particular focus of that, but it’s not confined to COVID-19. So, this will consider things such as long COVID, look at emerging therapeutics and treatments, look at any additional support required for emerging vaccines or dealing with variants. In addition to that, there’s very significant funding for emerging researchers.
So, this is support for early to mid-career researchers, over $42 million support for indigenous health.
The Brain Cancer Mission, which is such a- an important signature Australian initiative and we’ve had many people involved and many philanthropic groups have contributed, such as Carrie Bickmore’s – Carrie’s For Beanies programme and Beanies For Brain Cancer.
We’ve had the work of the Brain Cancer Foundation and so many others. So, all of these different programmes are being opened up to call for applications. It gives hope for researchers, hope for better treatment in relation to COVID. And we are seeing very strong and emerging evidence about the success of treatments, even in relation to Omicron, and Sonia may wish to address that.
The second thing we’re doing today is to list a new medicine for heart disease, Forxiga. Forxiga will be available from January 1, on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. And it’s for 75,000 Australians a year who suffer from the potential for heart failure. If you think of the left ventricle pumping, there’s a weakness which some face and the ventricle loses power.
What does that mean? It means that some people suffer heart failure and Forxiga is likely to save up to 3500 lives a year by being on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. So, it’s one of the medicines, which over the course of the last five years we’ve been able to list, which will probably save as many lives as any other. And that’s a really significant outcome.
So supporting 75,000 Australians, saving potentially up to 3500 lives a year. It simply prevents the heart losing power and being unable to provide the blood flow that’s necessary to keep all of this functioning and alive. And these medical breakthroughs are just immensely important, and it’s been very important that we’ve continued them through COVID.
In relation to COVID itself, very important progress with regards to the vaccination programme and the booster programme. We have now doubled, over the course of seven days, the number of boosters and the number of vaccinations in general that have been given.
What we’ve seen is that we’re now at 1.33 million boosters and there have been over 640,000 boosters given in just the last seven days. And the vaccination rate in Australia has gone from 500,000 a week average, to back over a million a week. And so, we’ve seen the system be able to ramp up and respond to demand.
There are over five million vaccines that have been placed with GPs, pharmacies, commonwealth and state clinics, so there is a very large volume that’s available. And the message is very simple. If you haven’t had your first dose, now’s the time. Please come out before Christmas and have your first dose or come back for your second. And in particular, if you are due for your booster, please come out and be boosted before Christmas. And if- if you can’t make it then, then during the period to New Year or early in the New Year. But we want everybody to come forward.
Australians have done a magnificent job, with over 640,000 boosters delivered in just the last week, and that number is increasing rapidly. We’re now at over 41 million vaccinations and our first dose rate is 93.8 per cent, and our second dose rate is at 90.4 per cent.
So, Australians are doing the right thing. But this week, if you’re eligible for your booster or due for your first or second dose, please don’t wait. Please come forward. But I do want to say, we’re well prepared. We have had one of the lowest rates of COVID across the world, one of the lowest rates of loss of life. And now we have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and one of the strongest hospital systems.
But every Australian can do their part and to protect themselves and their community by coming forward to be vaccinated all boosted if they’re eligible. I might ask Dr Sonya Bennett, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, to provide an update with regards to vaccination, known information with regards to Omicron and the preparedness of the system.
Thank you, Minister. Good morning, everyone. So, it’s been just over three weeks since we first heard about Omicron, the variant, and there’s still a lot of uncertainty. Particularly with respect to how severe we think Omicron might cause disease and various opinions.
But what we do know and what has become clear, is it is highly transmissible. So we are seeing rapid escalation of case numbers around the globe, particularly in the UK, with the UK recording over 90,000 cases in- yesterday.
We’re seeing case numbers rise here ourselves in New South Wales, particularly with 2500 cases or thereabouts yesterday as well. So, it is highly transmissible and appears to rapidly escalate with what’s called a doubling time of around two days, which is obviously concerning. But as the Minister said, Australia is well prepared.
Our systems are well prepared, the health system. We’re a highly vaccinated population, one of the highest rates of coverage in the world. But the numbers, the transmission rate alone is concerning. And if we see high numbers, that sheer number of cases is a cause for concern.
So, there’s still things that we can and should be doing. And the Minister has outlined and I would reinforce the call to everybody who has not who’s due for a booster to come forward and get boosted. There’s plenty of vaccine and there’s plenty of availability and access as well. And I know there’s been a little bit of interruption over the last week or so, but that’s settling down and you should be able to get an appointment before Christmas if you look around.
Also, anyone who hasn’t yet been vaccinated and that is a Shia minority in Australia, but every person is important. Please reconsider that- your decision and come forward and get your first dose. But then there’s a range of other measures that that we, as the public, have always utilised before COVID and- that we can continue, that we can do to protect ourselves.
And I would urge everyone to think about what they can do whilst we enjoy our family- time with family and friends this Christmas, which we’ve all earned. So, please enjoy that time with family and friends. Most borders are open. You’re able to gather, but think about how you can do that in a safe way. And there’s a there’s a range of measures.
So first and foremost, I’d probably encourage everyone to think about continuing to wear masks, particularly in settings that are indoor, public indoor spaces that may not be well ventilated. Think about wearing a mask. It’s a simple, easy thing to do.
We know at Christmas time the shops do get very crowded. I was there myself yesterday. It was really pleasing to see, you know, a large proportion of people still wearing masks, but probably not, not large enough. It’s a simple thing we can all do. I forgot mine. I didn’t have it.
But, it reminded me that in the future, I’ll certainly be taking a mask to anywhere that’s crowded, particularly around Christmas time, because it’s an effective- another effective layer of protection. If you’re having gatherings, think about having them outdoors or in well-ventilated spaces as much as possible. Limit numbers and just try and be safe and socially distance. Of course, the usual things like washing your hands and staying home when unwell always come into play.
So public health has always been about clear risk communication to- just to inform the community about what we can do ourselves to protect ourselves against disease. And that remains the case here, and it’s particularly important with the uncertainty going forward about Omicron.
So what I’d like to say- and businesses particularly as well, I think businesses, if you can just ensure businesses are using COVID safe practises. If we do end up with a lot of cases, regardless of severity, that’s going to have clearly have an impact on both business and industry and individuals.
So, cases will always have to be isolated for a certain period. And so just the sheer large number of cases will have an impact on society as well. So there are things we can do now to help mitigate that. And I just call on everyone to have enjoy Christmas with family and friends. But remember those measures that you can do to continue to protect yourself in the community.
Thanks Sonya. We’ll start in terms of questions from your perspective on the front left of the room and just work across, please.
So, Minister, a question for you.
The Netherlands is going back into lockdown for Christmas because of the Omicron wave. Is there any chance we’ll see more state-wide lockdowns in Australia? And a question for both of you, given how transmissible Omicron is, should New South Wales be prepared to bring back its mask mandate and QR codes?
Sure. Look, I’ll start with the first and then obviously let Dr Bennett deal with the second.
In relation to the Netherlands, my understanding is that their cumulative loss of life is very sadly about 1400 per cent of that which has occurred in Australia.
So, they’re a very different society with a very different case rate and a very different loss of – loss of life to date. So their circumstances are quite different to Australia, as well as the fact that they are going into a cold European winter. In fact, they’re already there, but they’re going into the depths of winter with a vastly higher case rate and sadly having had a vastly higher loss of life. So, a different country, different circumstances.
As I say, we’re going into summer. We have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and a very different set of circumstances. But each country will make their judgement on their own circumstances. And then – so we don’t see that that’s a likely situation in Australia.
We’re well prepared and people are overwhelmingly, I have to say, continuing to do an amazing job. So Australians – Australians have been real models. I’ve got to say during the course of the pandemic in the way they’ve gone about this, and yes, there’ll be individuals. It’s, you know, it’s a country of over 25 million people, but – and there’ll be individuals who take actions that others may not agree with, but overwhelmingly, Australians have been extraordinarily aware of themselves and their friends and colleagues. Sonia?
Thank you, Minister. I think we know mask mandates work. We know mandates work generally.
But I think my plea to the community is, we don’t need to wait for mandates to tell us what is sensible to do. And I think that particularly applies to masks. And they’re simple.
We’re used to it. I think most people around the country have worn masks at some stage or another during this pandemic. It’s a simple, easy, effective tool to continue to use when necessary.
And I’d really just, you know, ask the community to consider that they use that, that they make their own choice to use a mask and when it’s necessary,
The back left, please.
Thanks, Minister. Just a question around the booster programme.
There has been some concern amongst GPS, especially as we’re coming into this Christmas period. A lot of practises might close for a week or so. Is there – is there going to be a problem with the timing of the booster rollout?
Should we see the states ramping up perhaps the state clinics just to make sure that there’s enough coverage if GP clinics are closed for a period?
Sure. So over the course of the coming week, obviously before Christmas, we want as many people as possible to come forward to be boosted. The flexibility in the system, I think, was shown that we were able to ramp up from 500,000 a week, which was a very strong number in any event to now over a million in the last seven days.
The second thing, though, is we pre-positioned extremely large volumes of vaccines to cover the Christmas period. Over five million vaccines are in place, with another two million plus being expected to be delivered in the lead up to Christmas and then in the in the days beyond.
And then the third thing is that the states do have a very important role. We’ve been in contact with the states and territories, encouraging them to continue their state clinics, whilst the vast bulk of delivery has been done through GPs and pharmacies.
We recognise some practises will inevitably, just for the sheer role of giving their workforce a break, have to scale down. There will be continuity.
Pharmacies, in particular, are a huge avenue for community vaccination. Pharmacies will likely reach the three million over the course of the coming week, and their role is increasing. They’ve gone from 15,000 a day to over 50,000 a day on weekdays. And so the pharmacy role is more important.
Brendan Murphy and myself had our vaccination in in pharmacy a week ago. and in fact, my 90-year-old mother-in-law booked in and we took her down to the Mornington Village Pharmacy only yesterday to have her Moderna. And so pharmacies are playing a really important role. So, there’s pharmacy, there’s general practice, and if your general practise is not open, state clinics and pharmacies are available.
So, wherever you can go, whether it’s Moderna or Pfizer, they’re universal vaccines. Please keep coming forwards. Now, we’ll go to the front right, please.
The grants that you were talking about for the medical research in terms of long COVID, what do you see happening in that space?
And also, while I’ve got you, it’s likely today that the surge in cases in Australia recorded today, once all the states return their numbers, is going to be the highest on record.
Are you concerned about that? Because in the U.K., they’re saying that there’s two pandemics, there’s the Delta and now Omicron. Do you share that viewpoint?
Sure. So, let me let me just start with the medical research.
With regards to long COVID, and Sonia is obviously extremely well placed to give her advice. What we’re doing is monitoring and preparing for the likely impacts of a significant respiratory disease, which will have long running impacts. In some cases, other people will clear the disease and be able to return to life with absolute normality.
But we do know that there’s a proportion of people who have residual effects. And so the Medical Research Future Fund Respiratory Diseases programme will specifically contemplate the capacity for research. On that front, we’re already doing research, but this opens up more opportunities for more researchers.
And then in terms of the nature of the disease, at the moment in Australia, we have a predominant Delta, but an emerging Omicron. The nature of that Omicron is the subject of international studies, and Sonia might add something on that.
But we did know this, you know, having hit over 90 per cent double dosed, we’re one of the best protected societies in the world. And so, as we had the protection of vaccination, we were able to move away from the reliance on the measures which meant that people’s lives and their ability to connect with family were so severely impaired. And case numbers were always going to rise as restrictions were removed. And that’s been said by every state and territory, that’s been said by our Commonwealth medical advisers.
And so this was always the case, that as restrictions were removed, so as people could return to seeing their loved ones, of parents seeing children, of grandparents seeing grandchildren, of people reuniting, then that would lead to an increase in the number of cases. But most importantly, the thing which we focus on, the hospitalisations and the ICU capacity, remained strong and the numbers in ICU with COVID are actually very, very limited at this point in time. Sonia?
Yes. Thanks, Minister.
I’ll just reinforce those points. I think we’ve always considered Omicron would be more transmissible. So, we’re seeing- it is hard for both ourselves and even countries around the world to completely understand what proportion of their cases are Omicron versus Delta.
There is a belief that the majority are Omicron in the UK. But it’s very difficult through testing to completely confirm that. And so, I think that just underscores the fact there’s still a lot of uncertainty about this particular variant.
But what is what we’re watching? We continue to watch all the emerging evidence and it will adjust as necessary.
And clearly the most important outcome here is really protecting people from severe illness and the health system capacity as well. So that the health system can continue to treat people for a range of other illnesses as needed. And we’re in a good position for that. That’s very stable at the moment. We’ve got systems in place to monitor that and both surge and respond to it.
So, it’s really, for us, it’s about focussing on what we as a community can do now whilst we enjoy that time with family and friends at Christmas. And it’s a combination of vaccination and those other measures that I mentioned, such as mask wearing and being just being COVID safe.
On that long COVID.
So long- I mean, long COVID. We don’t completely understand long COVID yet, and that’s why this research support is so important.
Most viruses have what we call a post-viral syndrome. So, there’ll always be some sort of lingering effect with a range of viruses, some more debilitating than others.
We’re clearly seeing that with COVID, but we don’t completely understand what is, you know, specific to COVID and what might just be the effects of people recovering from what’s a debilitating illness.
So, the research is critical to that. The more we know about that, the better that it can obviously be managed.
Great. Thank you. And I’ll just go behind, please.
Thanks, Minister. This question relates to the approval of vaccines. And some people have contacted SBS, concerned about the fact that their parents, who are based overseas, have received vaccines that are not recognised by the Australian government.
So, this includes the Sinopharm for people who are aged over 60, and also the Sputnik vaccine. So, they’re concerned that they, their parents, will continue to face the barrier of having to come into the country and face 14 day’s hotel quarantine.
Is it really acceptable at this time and fair that the people who have made the effort to get vaccinated are continuing to face these kinds of restrictions?
So, just to explain that process, we have vaccines which are approved for use in Australia by the Therapeutic Goods Administration and ATAGI. So ATAGI is the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation at double green light.
And then we have other vaccines which are approved as being recognised for arrival in Australia, even if the vaccine itself hasn’t been authorised for use. At this stage, in relation to Sputnik, that hasn’t received a TGA approval. And where somebody doesn’t have a vaccine that’s been approved in relation to Australia, then they are subject to the hotel quarantine.
It is a difficult situation and I am sorry for those that would face that situation. But also recognise, that we have to follow this medical advice about the safety and effectiveness of vaccination. And one of the things is we have a truly world class independent regulator, and I’ve fought to protect that, and that’s been the right thing to do to make sure that the TGA calls it independently, that they call it in the interests of health and medical science.
And whilst that may be difficult for some, the alternative of not maintaining medical standards, not maintaining the standards would be, I think, deeply irresponsible. So that’s why those decisions are taken in that way. Next, please.
How likely is it Do you think that the rise in case numbers in Australia could prompt further restrictions?
And noting that Dr Bennett has this morning suggested that masks could be prudent in some settings. And as a second question, if I may. Do you expect some states will split with ATAGI on the booster program interval?
Have you been given any indication that New South Wales, for example, might bring forward the booster shot from five months to earlier?
So, look, ATAGI sets the national standard, and so far through the pandemic, all states and territories have followed that national standard. It would be a matter for them to explain if they were- if they were departing from that.
Over the course of Christmas, and this actually relates to an earlier question, ATAGI has said if there was some chance you may not be able to get yours when the five months occurs, then if you’re due by and in the lead up to January 3, you can come forward now.
Just because some may not have access to their GP if they wish to do that. So that’s been the flexibility. It’s a matter for individual states ultimately to make their own decisions. But to this point in time, all states and territories have followed ATAGI. And sorry Tom, there’s one other question.
Are more restrictions likely? Do you expect them in- over Christmas or perhaps in 2020 some further restriction on movement or other gathering sizes or something like that?
So, none of the states or territories have indicated that at this point in time. Obviously, everybody looks and responds to the circumstances. But the decision of Australia is overwhelmingly towards opening up.
Obviously, seven states and territories are now reunited and Western Australia has set their timeframe. So, it’s that direction towards opening up, which has been set.
And then individual measures might be adjusted from time to time, depending on circumstances. But the clear direction is higher vaccination and less restriction. But acknowledging that in individual cases, there may be specific measures that might be required, which was always contemplated under phase C of the national plan. And then the last question, please.
Thank you, Minister.
There’s data coming from the UK Health Security Agency that shows AstraZeneca to be particularly weak at preventing a symptomatic infection from Omicron. I should point out it is from a very small sample size. But are you aware of any data like that? It is a concern for you?
And also, can you ever imagine a scenario in which booster time frames would be set based on which vaccine you had initially? So, for example, can you imagine people who had AstraZeneca would have a shorter time frame to be able to get an mRNA booster?
So firstly, as Sonia mentioned, there’s lots of information that’s coming in, much of it preliminary. In some cases, it may not have been refereed yet. And so, our advice remains that all of the vaccines provide strong, clear protection against infection, serious illness, hospitalisation, loss of life.
In terms of Omicron, there’s emerging data, and I’ll ask Sonia to deal with that. And I haven’t had any indication at this point in time of a vaccine-specific related set of booster time frames. So – but what we do-do, is just as we’ve done with the TGA and I reference my earlier answer, with ATAGI we encourage and really defend and protect their independence. And sometimes we’ll see others with a medical expert background or others with just a passing medical background to give differing views.
But by having the two outstanding bodies, one the regulatory agency, the other one the vaccine advisory body, as strong and independent bodies that make their assessments, we get the best advice and they’re backed up by the Communicable Diseases Network of Australia. They’re backed up by the AAPPC or the panel of Chief Health and Medical Officers.
So, we continue to work with them and follow their medical advice to have those consolidated but independent voices. Sonya? Just in terms of the latest medical evidence.
Yeah. Thank you, Minister. Look, I understand there is some evidence that the antibody teeters from AstraZeneca, so the neutralisation of Omicron are a little less than from the mRNA vaccines.
But it’s important to remember that that’s what we call an in vitro test. And so it doesn’t necessarily reflect what happens in our own bodies, and there are other immune responses that occur that come forward when we get exposed now.
So, so having said that, it just comes back to the same important message, which is if you’re eligible for your booster, then please go and get it. Certainly our older people who many of whom had AstraZeneca, particularly those in high risk settings and residential care, the vast majority of those have already been boosted and that should be finalised very shortly before Christmas.
So that’s reassuring. You know, most of our potentially vulnerable older people. But there’s some, as I said, limited evidence in vitro. It doesn’t necessarily reflect what happens in real life. But just as soon as you’re eligible for your booster, to come forward and have it.
Yeah. I think that probably the place to finish is if 90-year-old Elsa, my mother-in-law, went down and got a regular booking at the pharmacy yesterday, had her Moderna, had her booster, then you know, that’s the message to all of us that if you are due, please come forward for your boosters.
As we say, there are over five million vaccines that have been pre-positioned for the coming weeks. And so, we have the largest volume of vaccines that have been placed through COVID currently available.
That doesn’t mean that every practise on every day will have available supply spots because practises have a variety of different roles. But across the system, pharmacy GPs, Commonwealth clinics, state clinics, Indigenous health clinics, there is a huge volume of vaccine available. And if you are due, please come forward for your first dose, your second dose or your booster.
With that, take care everybody, and know that the system is well prepared. And I want to thank Australians for responding magnificently and doubling the number of vaccinations in the last week and taking us back over that million per seven-day mark. Thank you. Thank you very much.