Topics: COVID-19 vaccine trials; aged care outbreaks; NDIS.
I want to give the Australian Government’s update on COVID-19 and the national actions to help prevent the spread and to contain the disease.
In particular today, I want to note that at a time when the world has reached approximately 20.4 million cases, 21.4 million cases, sadly, 770,000 lives lost, clearly heading towards a million, the progress on the search for a vaccine and its production is improving.
In particular, I want to note that for the first time, I am cautiously but realistically optimistic about the search for and the ability to distribute a vaccine.
That’s both global, but it’s also for Australia. For us, there are four elements to our approach to the vaccine: research, in Australia and overseas, and we’ve already had one significant round under the Medical Research Future Fund, and another is being assessed as we speak by the medical experts.
Secondly, there is our ability to partner with companies both within Australia and overseas directly, and we are in advanced negotiations with a number of vaccine producers, both within Australia and around the world. Thirdly, there’s our participation in the global facility – this is known as the Gavi COVAX facility.
What it is, is nations coming together to pool their resources, to invest in a variety of vaccines, and then to share the results across multiple countries. It’s a global initiative, but it will help all of the participating countries. And we have completed the first and only stage to have been opened and will participate in the next stage, and this is a very important global initiative.
And then finally, there is the production capability. Australia is blessed through foresight, preparation, and planning to have in CSL an effective national vaccine production facility for pandemics. That’s prepared. That exists. That’s available, and we are in advanced discussions with CSL, and that will help us produce a vaccine, whether it’s one in which CSL is involved or other companies or other countries.
And I think that’s really important to have that cautious but genuine optimism, because it now reflects where the science is at. It now reflects where the production is at.
Until now, we have been very cautious, and we’ve played down the possibility of a vaccine. There’s still no guarantee, but there is real progress, and I would say this cautious but genuine hope and optimism.
More broadly, when we look at Australia, we know that there have now been 23,287 cases diagnosed since January and very, very sadly, 396 lives lost. Today of course, that’s been added to with 16 from Victoria, agonisingly, and one from New South Wales.
At the same time, there is also a hope in the numbers. Five cases in New South Wales, less than 300 in Victoria. These things are coming together to show an early but clear flattening of the curve.
There’s a long way to go in Victoria. Seven out of eight states are doing extraordinarily well. All of us, though, are helping Victoria and putting our resources into that state.
With regards to the containment process, the border control processes are continuing to protect Australians with hundreds of cases having been prevented from entering the community through the hotel quarantine process.
Clearly we know of the challenges that occurred within Victoria. As we move forwards, our testing has now reached over 5.3 million tests and very significantly it remains one of the broadest and most accurate regimes in the world, but we need Australians to continue to come forward where they have symptoms.
With regards to tracing, this has been a fundamental part of the ability to control in New South Wales, and it continues to improve in Victoria. Over 400 ADF are involved. We have approximately on any one day 150 foot teams that are out as well as the central resources that are going into the tasking and the identification of contacts through that program. That’s been an extraordinarily important part of our national contribution.
And then the distancing, and I say to my fellow Victorians I know how hard this is for families, for singles, for older Australians. This distancing can be so hard. It can be isolating, but there really is help, and there is hope. And we are making that difference, and that’s what’s going to save us, what’s going to protect us, and there’s optimism on that.
I then want to come briefly to capacity. We now have- within Australia we now have approximately 25 million Telehealth consultations that have occurred. A vast number of those have been for mental health to support Australians. A radical transformation of our general practice and medical delivery systems.
In terms of aged care, which has been such a focus since January going forwards, we have 1000 surge workforce in Victoria. The ADF has visited over 60 facilities. AUSMAT has visited over 50 facilities to help support them and to make a profound difference. The Aged Care Quality and Safety Commissioner has inspected over 50 facilities recently within Victoria.
All of these are helping to stabilise what has been the outcome of widespread community transmission. These things are important and making a profound difference. With regards to our hospitals, in particular the advice I have is that there are 680 patients in hospital, 47 with ICU needs being attended to, and 34 on some form of ventilation.
So these are very ill patients, but our ICU outcomes have been amongst the best in the world with an 89 per cent survival rate. But anybody in that situation is clearly in a grave and ill position, but with some of the best care and best results in the world.
Finally, on research I want to- and vaccines and immunisation, I want to say this, that what we have is now highly advanced discussions, clear progression. Professor Murphy today is leading a team investigating final negotiating positions for international contracts. And beyond that I would note that as we have to take care of our general health, our immunisation rates have just been released for one, two, and five-year-olds both for the general population and the indigenous population.
All six categories, one, two, and five-year-year-old immunisation rates for the general population and specifically for the indigenous population are up during the period of COVID-19, which is an extraordinary national achievement and at record levels, and so I want to thank all of the families, the health workers, the indigenous care workers, so many people who’ve contributed to what is almost a counterintuitive outcome but a life-saving, life-protecting outcome.
Happy to take any questions. I’ll begin with Paris please.
Hello, Minister. I’m- I know you’ve signed a non-disclosure regarding the development of vaccines, but would you be confident to rule out Say Russia’s vaccine until it’s gone through Stage 3 testing?
So, yes we have signed two nondisclosure agreements, which are effectively pre-contractual agreements indicating that we’re in highly advanced discussions with vaccine manufacturers.
With regards to the Russian vaccine, that’s not one which has been recommended by our medical expert team at this stage.
We will monitor it, we will be very cautious about it, given the small number, I believe it was less than 40 people on whom it had been tested during initial trials, and we’ll await the results
But our strong, clear medical advice was to be cautious until there was clear data and a significant number of people. But more generally, those two non-disclosure agreements are very, very good news for Australians. If I may go to Sean.
Hello, Minister. You said today you’re more optimistic about the development of a COVID vaccine on the basis of the best medical advice. Can you take us through perhaps in more detail what that medical advice is and why today you’re more optimistic about a vaccine than you were, say, yesterday or last week?
I think that’s a very important question. Every day we’re reviewing data, reviewing science, and the advice from the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly, the advice from Professor Brendan Murphy, the secretary of the department and obviously the immediate past Chief Medical Officer is that the data coming out of leading international trials and of the leading international vaccine candidates is very prospective.
It’s improved to the point where there is a belief that we are now far more likely than not to have genuine vaccines that will be available.
The question will be whether they are what are called full vaccines or partial vaccines. That hasn’t been determined yet.
The partial vaccine, for example, is equivalent to what we know with the flu, where it may need to be updated. It might not provide universal prevention, but it does reduce the likelihood and reduce the consequences.
The full vaccine is the equivalent of smallpox or measles, where overwhelmingly there is protection against and therefore prevention of the disease. Matt.
Thanks, Minister. When you were saying earlier today that there was potential for multiple vaccines to be developed, does that have the potential to create competition between the pharmacies, between the people developing the vaccines to keep the price down once it does get launched? And also on a related note, will any vaccine that is developed, will that be government-funded so Australians won’t be out of pocket when they go to get immunised?
The short answer to both questions is yes and yes.
More generally, obviously, there are multiple vaccines under development around the world – over 160 in different phases of clinical trials and more through the research and development pre-clinical trial phases.
With regards to the provision, our goal is really simple, and that is a nationally funded, whole-of-population vaccine. That’s our very simple goal, and that’s been fundamental in everything that we’ve done.
Thank you, Minister. I know that you don’t have a crystal ball and you can’t tell us exactly when we’ll get a vaccine, but if all goes to plan can you give an indication, are we talking three months, six months, 18 months?
So the best advice that we have is that 2021 is the most likely time for a vaccine. We’ll obviously drive to have it available at the earliest possible time.
We’re fortunate because we have the manufacturing capability of CSL’s plant in Melbourne, and CSL is a world-leading vaccine manufacturer through their vaccine arm in their own right, but they have what’s called contract licensing capacity, the ability to manufacture in Australia.
Because it doesn’t matter whichever country, whichever company, produces a successful vaccine, no country or company can produce enough for the world. Therefore they’ll rely on that contract manufacturing, and we are fortunate to have that capability here in Australia – long-planned, long-prepared, but now ready as needed, and I think that’s a very important national asset and one which I think it’s important to explain to Australians, so as they understand our ability no matter where the vaccines are to be able to scale them up and produce in Australia for all Australians.
Thanks, Minister. Just on reports that elderly people were being turned away from hospitals and instead being sedated in aged care facilities, what do you say to this? And do you think any aged care residents who contract COVID should automatically be transferred to hospital as is the case in some states, rather than just on a case by case basis?
Sure. So, we have made it absolutely clear that any aged care resident who is positive that has a clinical need must be transferred. Any aged care resident that’s positive that has a clinical need- must be positive – we’ve had that agreement now from the Victorian Government.
I know there are some facilities that have reported resistance at local hospital level, and wherever that’s been the case we’ve taken it up either with the hospital system or Victoria.
This is one of the key items for the Victorian aged care response centre. It’s a dual partnership – the Australian Government and the Victorian Government. And they’re working on the transfer of residents.
I believe the last figure I have is about 414 residents have been transferred to hospital. Most under the private hospitals agreement. Those with clinical need to the public hospitals, and we’ll continue to prosecute that case. So it’s being done on the basis of the medical advice. We’ll continue to follow the medical advice as our guide.
Thanks, Minister. With regards to some of the measures that are ingrained to assist with aged care like having state based coordination centres, more PPE training, given the latest community transmission in New South Wales, has the Government prioritised establishing those extra measures in New South Wales next, seeing as we are having some deaths?
We’ll work with all states but with an absolute focus on New South Wales as the state with our next need and support tranche, and I say that because New South Wales is ready.
They’re prepared. Their public health unit has been, as I’ve said before, one of the world’s leading tracing public health units in the world.
They are extremely well prepared on the aged care front, but clearly New South Wales is the state which has been fighting off the risk of community transmission.
The numbers today are heartening, but they’re only one day’s numbers, but they’ve continued to hold the line and to progressively bring them down. But they are our first priority, given the risk outside of Victoria.
Thanks, Minister. If I can just stick with aged care for a moment, in Victoria, the aged care facility in Yarraville, which has had significant issues over the weekend, there have been reports that people have been going without food for hours, that there’s insufficient staff to change people’s clothing and bathe them.
Given what we just learned in the Aged Care Royal Commission about Victoria’s perhaps response especially with aged care, does that mean that these lessons haven’t yet been learned? And what more can be done to implement these changes given that we’re still seeing these issues?
Look, I think this is a very important question. We’ve taken immediate action, and I know for example that Joe Buffone, who’s the director of the Victorian Aged Care Response Centre was speaking with the Doutta Galla facility at 12:30 last night.
The advice that I have is in fact that those reports are older reports and not reflective of the current situation, and the facility has issued a release today. I believe that there were 13 staff overnight, and there are more staff available today and that they regard themselves as being well staffed.
Nevertheless, we’ve also dispatched an AUSMAT team. I believe this will be its third visit to the facility and so I’m told that those are older reports, but precisely because each day every day we monitor the cases, we look every morning.
The Prime Minister leads an aged care response conference with myself, the Aged Care Minister, the Defence Force, the health department, and we go on a granular basis through all of the major facilities, any with emerging case. So we looked at this one at length this morning overnight.
Again, very strong review in the middle of the night from the Aged Care Response Team, and the advice is that those figures were older and that has also been confirmed by the facility today.
But I think perhaps it’s valuable for Australians to understand that the Prime Minister is focusing every morning, on a granular detail, facility by facility, on the situation, whether there are advances or any challenges, any resources that are needed, mobilising in advance to have that surge workforce.
As I say, a thousand surge workers mobilised under the Commonwealth programs as well as AUSMAT, as well as ADF, as well as nurses from interstate, and we really thank those people.
And I want to thank our incredible aged care workforce that have been dealing with a community transmission outbreak, the likes of which has not been seen before in Australia since a hundred years ago with regards to the risk with that one level of concentration in one state in one city and, in particular, in one region of one city.
Thanks, Minister. The council to the royal commission said clearly that there wasn’t sufficient planning in place now in the aged care sector specifically. Is that correct?
And on vaccines briefly, is it your expectation that there would be different types of vaccines for different sections of the population? I.e. kind of, more than one version of the vaccine.
Sure. So, just with regards to vaccines first, we will follow the medical expert advice. What we have in Australia is a body called ATAGI, which looks at the overview of which vaccines are appropriate for which part- portions of the population.
And so that would be a medical question, and if it’s one vaccine which will serve as a universal vaccine for the population, we’ll provide that. If there are two or more vaccines required for different parts of the population, we’ll provide it.
Our goal and our commitment is whole-of-population vaccine availability. With regards to those particular comments – I obviously won’t speak about the commission directly – I will say this, that there has been a comprehensive national plan, which began in January.
It’s been through six stages, including in February, I believe on 18 February, the release of the national pandemic plan with aged care being one of the fundamental elements.
On 13 March the release of the national aged care COVID-19 plan, which has been updated on a number of occasions, and that’s been backed by $850 million of funding focused where the Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission has been directly engaged with every facility, now on multiple occasions and has seen a plan develop for all facilities around the country.
And many of them in February were given hard marks in terms of whether they were ready or not, and that was a tough assessment early on in the piece. And so we continued to work with the facilities.
The overwhelming number of facilities and the overwhelming body of our extraordinary workers have done an incredible job, and I want to thank them, but that plan began in January, and we’ve continued it right throughout.
I might go to Tim, please.
Minister, two issues if I could. Firstly, Victoria, I understand the State Government asked for a state response centre to be set up on disability services like the aged care one, but the Federal Government turned down funding for that. Could you please qualify what the situation is and how well you believe disability services are covered there?
The second question is to simply say that Labor argues that your effort towards a vaccine is way too little too late, and there should have been a more active push to win agreements far earlier in the piece, what is your response to that?
Sure. Look, with regards to disability, the specific question I’ll refer to Minister Stuart Robert. But the latest advice that I have is that there are 39 cases in Australia, active cases of people with disability under the NDIS who have COVID-19. All of those are in Victoria.
And the other element of that advice is that those with a disability under the NDIS are four times less likely to contract COVID-19 than the general population. So I think that that’s worth repeating, that the advice that I have- those with a disability under the NDIS care are four times less likely to contract COVID-19 than the general population.
Then with regards to the vaccines, I couldn’t be more optimistic or clear about our national position. We are one of the best positions of any country in the world because not only do we have our own leading research candidates, we have access through direct agreements, through the international facility, the Gavi COVAX facility, and we have our national manufacturing capacity through the CSL Melbourne plant. And all of these put us in one of the strongest positions of any country in the world to procure, produce, and deliver a vaccine to the whole population.
And I think that’s a very positive note on which to finish, and as I say to Australians, as the Prime Minister and myself and Brendan Murphy and Paul Kelly have said throughout, this is difficult. No-one is immune, no state, no city, no individual, but of all the countries in the world, we are I believe as well-prepared as any, and we’ll get through this. And I’m increasingly of that view. Take care. Thank you everybody.