Topics: $38 million for diabetes and cardiovascular research, International and domestic COVID vaccination update; Vaccine rollout – open call for general practice vaccinations next week; Emerging strains posing risk to vaccine development; Pregnant women and COVID vaccination; Acting Prime Minister’s comments; Craig Kelly; National approach to traffic light system; Health infrastructure; Vaccine rollout targets; Herd immunity; Suppression vs elimination; Emergency vaccination approval.
Thank you very much for joining us today. I’m joined by Dr Karen Price, who’s the President of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and it’s a real privilege to have you here.
And I want to start by thanking our extraordinary medical community, our doctors and our nurses, our incredible Australian medical family. They’ve kept us safe. They’ve been courageous during the height of the pandemic.
We’ve seen the enormous challenges that doctors and nurses and other medical professionals have faced overseas at the height of the risk during the March and April waves in Australia and in Victoria during the second wave.
They’ve put themselves on the frontline and I want to take this opportunity to thank Karen and through Karen, all of our GPs, our doctors, our hospital workers, our pharmacists, our pathologists, our allied health workers, everybody associated – and especially our aged care workers – everybody associated with health and medical care and protection in Australia.
And indeed, today is about two things. One is our general health, and secondly, acknowledging the steps forward and the steps we’re taking with regards to the coronavirus vaccine.
Now, in particular, I’m delighted that we are jointly able to announce $38 million of Australian Government funding for diabetes and cardiovascular care. That’s an immensely important step forward, and that will involve three elements.
Firstly, $10 million for a National Diabetes Research Centre. This will be a competitive program. It will be open and peer reviewed, and that will focus on diabetic kidney disease, limb diseases which are complications from diabetes, hypo and hyper glycaemia and related conditions.
$10 million for a national cardiovascular disease research centre, and that will include a focus on coronary artery disease, heart failure and stroke, amongst other conditions.
Then we have $18 million for competitive grant programs for different projects. They could be clinical trials. They could be primary research. They could be development of devices. All of these elements will be through competitive programs.
So that’s what we’re doing with regards to health because, through COVID, one of the things that has been very important – together we’ve created telehealth and rolled it out to maintain the day-to-day health of Australians.
And we know that that challenge has been a global one, but because of the advent of telehealth in Australia, we have a particularly strong outcome.
Now, with regards to COVID-19, I think the important facts today are that there are six community cases across Australia, and I’m advised by the National Incident Centre that this compares with over 600,000 cases globally. Six cases in Australia. Over 600,000 cases globally.
And in particular, there are zero lives that have been lost in Australia. There is one Australian in ICU with COVID. And 9765 lives that have been lost, agonisingly, at the global level.
We know that that means that we’re in a situation where the world has over 90 million cases. Over 1.9 million lives lost, and each of those are growing at an extraordinary rate. And all of this is against a background where we have borders, international, testing, tracing and distancing.
In terms of tests, there have been over 60,000 tests in the last 24 hours, which takes us to over 12.1 million tests Australia-wide. That’s a national average of 476 per 1000 Australians, which is an extraordinary result.
In Victoria, the highest rate of testing in the country, that’s 507 tests. And in Western Australia, the lowest rate of testing in the country, that’s 253 per 1000. So in those jurisdictions which have lower numbers, we understand why, but we would nevertheless encourage the authorities there to work on the testing rates.
We have, in recent weeks, tested over 326 aged care facilities with zero cases amongst staff or residents.
So, those are extraordinary steps, but we know in a world of six cases within the Australian community, and 600,000 plus within the global community, that we won’t be fully safe until the world is safe, and that’s part of the global vaccination rollout but it’s also part of the Australian vaccination rollout.
And last week, with the Prime Minister and the Chief Medical Officer and the Secretary of the Health Department, who is also the head of the medical expert group on vaccines, we announced the national rollout plan that in particular was focusing on the population groups.
One fundamental part is the distribution process. And so we will have hospitals, most especially within the context of the Pfizer vaccine, because of the -70 cold chain.
But we will also have the very strong community rollout. Australian Government vaccination centres, state-based vaccination centres – and we’ve been working with all of the states and territories on those, and they’re doing a tremendous job – Aboriginal community-controlled health organisations, but also general practices.
We have a national vaccination network, which last year saw us deliver 17 million vaccinations for flu, approximately.
And that vaccination network is built around our general practices with support from our pharmacies. And so our general practices will commence when the AstraZeneca vaccine commences as part of Stage 1B.
And next week, we’ll be inviting all Australian general practices to participate if they wish. That will involve making sure that they’re able to participate in the Australian Immunisation Register and record all vaccinations, to undertake the appropriate training, and if they wish, if they see themselves as a vaccinator, to participate in that program.
And we’ll open that call for general practice vaccinations next week, which is what I’m announcing with Karen today, as well as this focus on diabetes and stroke.
So we’re doing extraordinarily well. There’s more to be done, but when we compare the international with the Australian outcomes, we see that our doctors and our nurses have not only kept us safe, they have delivered an outcome that is, in so many ways, the envy of just about all of the rest of the world.
And we owe Karen, you, and your fellow practitioners, a deep debt of gratitude. Thank you. Karen Price.
Thank you for that vote of support and I know that Australia’s general practitioners are very happy to hear that Government is supporting general practice in this challenging time.
I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land and sea in which we work and live, and here we are in the lands of the Boon wurrung and Bunurong peoples. I’d like to pay my respects to elders past and present.
But thank you, Minister. What a time we have had in these times. Thank you to the media, also, for sharing in this historic moment.
We are about to rollout the largest vaccination program in recent history. Immunisation has made an enormous contribution to global health, along with clean water and sanitation.
And this COVID vaccine is vast. The head of the Therapeutic Goods Administration has expressed it as a significant major national effort, which requires all of us to cooperate together, which I’m pleased to say has, for the most part, been occurring.
And that includes you, the media, and clinicians like myself, and nursing staff and so forth, the general public who’ve been following the guidelines from the chief health officers, our scientists – I’m rather proud to have Sharon Lewin as one of my medical student colleagues. She was brilliant then and she’s brilliant now – and, of course, our politicians, have all played a part in the fight against COVID. So thanks for the communications and the regular updates, because as Minister Hunt has just declared, the Australian response has been lifesaving.
We cannot emphasise enough, as general practitioners, that we still need to comply with all of the public health measures, which do change regularly and it is challenging to keep up, but thank you to people for continuing to review that information as it comes through.
And really good job, Australia. Now we’re ready to roll out the vaccines, so I’d like to say: take that, 2020. It was a tough year. It was a tough year for so many. All of us have probably had experiences where we’ve suffered some degree, some hardships.
But I’m really proud to say that Australian general practice stands ready to support our communities from the rural and remote places, to the big city communities. GPs are ideally placed all across Australia and are highly trained and trusted members ready to inform our members of the public, ready to go through a consent process, and ready to vaccinate.
And your GP will be able to assist you with that information and help to create an understanding to the available evidence.
The RACGP is working constructively with the Government to ensure a confident vaccine rollout.
And thank you to the media for participating in responsible science communication, which is so important at this time.
Australia has historically and previously achieved around a 92 per cent immunisation coverage and I see no reason for that to change with this COVID vaccination program.
GPs also can specially help those communities with culturally, linguistically, and diverse cultures navigate the vast trust issues that we have built over the decades of our care.
So I have confidence in this vaccine for my patients, for my family, and I know it will all help us avoid hospitalisations and severe COVID disease, and help protect our community.
There are challenges, but let’s not forget that we are so fortunate to be where we are right now in Australia. We really have done an amazing job.
We’re able to follow quickly the overseas data and we have secured the supply chain of the vaccine with a local manufacturer, which is a really important part of a public health response.
And Australia will continue to respond as vaccines go through the regulatory TGA processes in which we can all have confidence.
So this is a historic moment, but for all the right reasons this time. Perhaps we can move on perhaps from the hardships and we can have hope. The year 2021 is a bit corny, but the year 2021 is a year of vaccination.
And GPs stand ready, willing, and able to help. So thank you very much. Thank you, Minister Hunt.
Thank you. Happy to take any questions in the room and then turn to those on the phone.
Do the new and emerging strains of coronavirus pose a risk to the vaccine development and rollout?
The best advice we have is that our vaccination program is unchanged and unaffected.
Obviously, we’ll keep that under review. But that’s a discussion which the Prime Minister and I have been briefed on by both Professor Paul Kelly, the Chief Medical Officer, and Professor Brendan Murphy, who is not only the Secretary of the Department of Health, but also the Head of the Vaccines Advisory Group.
So at this stage, there is no sign that these strains do affect the vaccination program. In other words, our vaccinations are strong and effective.
We’ll keep this under review. The world is learning every day about that, but that appears to be not just the advice in Australia, but the international advice.
What’s the current advice for pregnant women who may be considering accepting the vaccine and what is the science informing these policy positions?
Sure. So the Therapeutic Goods Administration, to which Karen referred, that’s Australia’s medical regulator, will assess the advice from the vaccine manufacturers and make a definitive decision on that.
So, we don’t have a final position yet, and I apologise for that. But that’s simply a function of Australia taking the swift but full safety processes.
And this is one of the reasons exactly why, along with Japan and South Korea, and New Zealand, Taiwan, and others, we’ve chosen to go down the full safety assessment process; precisely so as when it comes to the time for vaccination, we have the best advice in the world from the best medical regulator in the world.
So, that question will be answered by the TGA when they complete their assessment.
And on a slightly different note, do you agree with your colleague Minister McCormack that some facts can be contentious and his refusal to rebuke a Coalition MP who likened mandatory masks to child abuse?
Look, there’ll be very different views. We listen to our medical advisers. That’s what set Australia apart. I’m standing next to one of Australia’s leading medical advisers for precisely that reason.
And so we followed the medical advice. We’ve always lent in to make sure that we’re getting that medical advice at the earliest possible time.
I know there are differing views. There are some widely quoted commentators who may have predicted 400,000 lives lost, and that was clearly incorrect, and yet they’re still widely quoted by the press.
There are some widely quoted commentators who said we would run out of ventilators in April, only three weeks after they were making their comments, and that was clearly false. There were approximately 7500 ventilators that were built into the Australian- into the Australian arsenal of protection, and that was never even remotely close.
And that there are some commentators that predicted that there’d be 3000 cases in New South Wales on the 8th of January, and I believe there was one case detected that that day.
So there will be different views from many people. Our advice comes from what I believe are the best medical advisers in the world. That’s what’s protected Australia and that’s what we’re going to continue to do. I’ll take them now-
Just on that, sorry. Will you look to censure Craig Kelly for championing those unproven coronavirus treatments and likening mask use by children to child abuse?
Look, we follow the advice of the medical advisers. And many people, as I’ve just said, will put out differing views. Many of those views have been shown to be wrong.
And I would urge everyone to listen carefully to the advice of the Australian medical regulators and Australian Government medical advisers.
They are the ones who, in my view, are the best in the world. The most credible in the world, and have helped deliver the best outcome; or arguably one of the best outcomes in the world.
And how is it that Australia is at a point with six cases of community transmission versus over 600,000 worldwide? Because as a Government, we have focussed on a medically driven, but politically led approach where we listen and then we act.
And I think that’s been a real hallmark of what Australia has done.
And I’ll just take the take the (dial-in) questions. I think the first one is Jonathan Kearsley.
Thank you, Minister. Just in relation through the last 24 hours or so, we’ve seen in Victoria issue this traffic light permit system to allow people, Victorians, to essentially get home again. What do you make of that system? And given the failures that took place over the first (inaudible) hours or so with it not working, is there a need for a national sort of approach, a national permit system?
Look, firstly, it’s a matter for Victoria. I know that’s a system they have developed themselves. That’s very much a Victorian approach.
The Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer has laid out a national hotspot definition, and that’s the one which we have put on the table. And in relation to, for example, the Northern Beaches area or Greater Brisbane, and that’s provided national advice.
Some states and territories have been very clear that they reserve the right not to adopt that national approach. That is their choice and a matter for them to explain.
But we have set out a clear, singular, precise national definition, and we would invite all to feel free to use that. But we respect it if others choose to go a different way.
If I could have Josh Butler please.
Yeah, thank you, Minister. I appreciate it. You kind of touched on already in your introductory remarks, but on the vaccine roll out, the Prime Minister said last week he hopes 4 million people will be vaccinated between mid-to-late late February and the end of March.
That’ll be about- an average of about 100,000 people per day taking jabs. We might need similar numbers each day for that whole rollout until October perhaps. I know that you said you’re ramping up from 80,000 a week to start with, but do we currently have the health infrastructure right now to administer 100,000 vaccines a day for weeks on end?
And a second one, if it’s okay, on the far away end of the rollout, you’ve said you want every Australian who wants a vaccine to get one by October. What is the ballpark of total vaccinations you’d like to see? Is it 10 million Australians, is it 15? Is it 20 million? Even a rough figure.
Sure. So firstly, in terms of vaccination rollout infrastructure, I’m standing next to the leader of that process. So the general practises of Australia for phase 1B going forward. The pharmacies from phase 2 are expected to join.
And we were speaking today with the head of the Pharmacy Guild. And last week, I spoke with the AMA as well. And so they’re all pitching in.
And so we actually have a network which produced 17 million vaccinations last year.
And I think that’s one of the things which is sometimes not realised. Karen referred to the fact that we are a great vaccination nation, and that’s absolutely right. We’ve gone from eight million flu vaccinations only a few years ago, to 11 to 13 million and then to 17 million.
So we’ve been able to achieve extraordinary, extraordinary outcomes. And we saw the flu deaths in the last year plummet, absolutely plummet. And I think that’s an incredible outcome.
So we can do this because we did it last year and we did it the year before.
But the difference this year is twofold. One, the vaccines can be more complex because they come in vials which have multi doses, and that’s, in the case of the Pfizer, a minus 70-degree vaccine. And so that is more complex why we’re using the- and that’s why we’re using the hospital hubs.
In the case of the AstraZeneca vaccine, it’s not difficult to administer, but it is a multi dose vial.
And so that adds to the traditional complexity. But we have the existing vaccination network of general practises and subsequently pharmacies. We have the state-based vaccination clinics, the Commonwealth vaccination clinics, the Aboriginal community controlled health organisations and the hospitals, all of which will deliver that.
In terms of the total number, we’d like to see as many Australians as possible be vaccinated. It’s free, it’s voluntary, but it’s universally available. And on the ability of the General Practice Network and the general practitioners of Australia to deliver it, I might ask Karen to have a few words.
The Australian general practise community, as I said, is ready. And Minister Hunt has already said that we delivered 17 million flu shots last year. So this is well within our capacity.
We’ve also got an ability to, with government support, fulfil the infrastructure required to do that.
And we’ve got an enormous surge capacity in general practise. It’s not often realised that we are all around the country in remote from remote areas right into the cities, of course.
And GP’s are looking for details and we’ve been already talking about it on the forums and so forth, and various doctors have been putting up models and how to do it.
So we’re already thinking well ahead about how are we going to do this for the Australian public.
So the planning is underway as new information comes to light. We make adoptions and we’re ready to help.
We know there’s going to be a lot of education required, and that’s part of our super strength as GPs.
So it’s what we do every day. We help with health literacy and help people understand what might be a complex public health situation, we reduce down for that particular person’s personal circumstances.
And we go through all of the difficulties and challenges they may have in being able to understand that message. So that is what general practise does. We do it every day.
This is something that we’re well within our capacity to do and we can do it safely.
We are aware of making sure we’ve got safe practises. Our nurses are highly trained to be able to help us and support us in this process.
As I said, we stand ready, willing and able to say good bye to COVID as much as possible in this year and get the nation vaccinated.
There we go. Great. And I’ll go to Liam Mannix.
Minister, the government appears to have committed to rolling out AstraZeneca’s vaccine, but the clinical trial evidence suggests it’s only 62 per cent effective. That’s obviously below the threshold needed to achieve the herd immunity.
By rolling this out widely, is the Australian government essentially conceding our vaccine strategy is not going to provide herd immunity?
No, not at all. And respectfully, I’ve heard that argument put by one of the people who predicted 400,000 deaths in the last year, I think the 28th of February was the prediction.
And secondly, that same person predicted 3000 cases on the 8th of January in New South Wales rather than the one which actually occurred.
So we’re listening to the Australian Government medical experts, and they’re the ones choosing the vaccines, and they’ve chosen on the basis that an mRNA vaccine has never, ever been done before for anything. So there’s an important role.
Minus 70 means that there are challenges and that there is a very strong history of different types of conventional vaccine being rolled out with high effectiveness.
And it’s important to note that the results also show up to 90 per cent effectiveness more generally with final results to come on AstraZeneca, and up to 100 per cent in relation to the severe illness. And so all of those things come together.
The advice again, and I spoke with the Chief Medical Officer only last night, is that this is what the medical expert panel of Australia, the one that has helped keep us safe, has recommended.
And of all the different things on which to follow the advice of the medical experts, the choice of vaccines is probably the most important.
And the one in which I think it’s most absolutely fundamental that we follow the advice of the group that every year helps identify the flu, that helps identify the childhood vaccinations that keep us safe.
And only in 2020, we reached record five-year-old vaccination rates, where our families and our communities were coming together with the medical community to vaccinate our young Australians.
And the fact that we rose to record levels in the midst of lockdowns I think is an extraordinary outcome. I think, Chloe.
Hello Minister, there’s a lot of debate today over virus elimination versus suppression. How confusing is it that the states have different approaches and who’s got it right, New South Wales or most of the other states?
Look, I think Australia as a whole has done incredibly well. And I think the difference here is that we have a zero community transmission goal for Australia, and we achieved that in June, and we achieved that for multiple days in December.
But the risk is not of transmission from one state to another in any material or significant way.
The only way you could eliminate any threat of the virus is if you closed all of the international borders, no export of wheat or wool or iron ore.
No import of critical foods or critical medicines. No families being reunited, loved ones, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, people coming home for weddings, for funerals, people coming home potentially to palliate, people coming home for births.
All of these are the basis upon which we bring people home. And just to put that in context, as I say, six cases in Australia today, 600,000 globally.
And as an example of that, the threat isn’t domestic, but it is global. And so the advice I have from the National Incident Centre only today is that we’ve had 6300 cases of overseas-acquired COVID, which have been identified over the course of the last year, and I think 779 in Western Australia and nine in the last week, for example.
And so you won’t be able to have true eradication unless you close international, not state borders.
That’s where the point of challenge and risk is and that’s why we have very strict and in many cases heart wrenchingly difficult limitations on people coming to Australia. But they’ve kept us safe.
But that’s the fundamental challenge. And we know that the cases that have occurred, whether it’s been in South Australia, or we’ve seen in Victoria, in Queensland or New South Wales, have come from people returning from overseas.
We also know, for example, in Western Australia, there were two recent breaches. One, somebody in Albany who jumped ship, another case of PPE breaches, which led to people being quarantined.
And so that risk is permanent. And it’s very important to be honest about that. There will be outbreaks so long as we engage with the rest of the world there will be outbreaks.
But our goal is zero community transmission. That’s the unifying national focus. That’s what comes from the national cabinet. That’s what we’ve achieved.
But to imagine that that will be a permanent state until the world is broadly vaccinated and Australia is widely vaccinated is not something that anybody can promise.
But we can promise that with borders, testing, and therefore we encourage those states that have low testing rates to lift them, tracing and distancing, we can keep Australia safe from those outbreaks that everybody I think needs to acknowledge are inevitable whilst we maintain the pathway of bringing home loved ones who are separated from their family.
To clarify, though, the Federal Government has always said a suppression would be the way to go. Do you think the states are disrespecting the Federal Government by not being on board with a suppression model?
No, I don’t think there’s any significant difference here. Our goal is zero community transmission.
Zero community transmission comes from aggressive suppression.
True elimination means that you have to close the international borders. The threat is not domestic borders with six cases; the threat is a global challenge with 600,000 cases, and I think that’s widely acknowledged.
And that’s why when we say zero community transmission, we’re saying, that’s our goal, that’s what we’ve achieved, we’ll achieve it again.
But nobody can promise that that will be maintained, not because of transmission across state borders, but because of the challenge of interacting with the global community, where we’re seeing a global pandemic, the greatest pandemic that the world has faced since the Spanish Flu, the greatest pandemic in 100 years. And that’s raging outside our borders. It’s just not raging within them.
And then I will take Paul Karp, I think.
Thanks very much, Minister. Craig Kelly stands by his advocacy of hydroxychloroquine and has suggested that anti-parasitic drug ivermectin is more effective than COVID vaccines.
Is that helpful? And why aren’t you using your free speech to contradict him?
And secondly, for the general population, you’ve explained why we’re waiting for a full vaccination approval. But why aren’t we using an emergency authorisation for frontline workers like border quarantine and healthcare workers in the meantime? Thank you.
Which step would you have us skip, Paul?
Well, I’m asking you the question about if other jurisdictions have judged that it’s safe and those frontline workers want to take the vaccine, is there an issue that you see with having emergency approval?
If there’s a particular step you would wish Australia to skip, please let me know.
Well, a minute ago you were criticising people who weren’t public health authorities for making predictions, so I’m not going to tell you how to do your job, I’m just asking a question, why, if frontline staff want that extra protection, they don’t have that option.
Well, as I say, I’m not supporting Australia skipping any steps. And if you are, please feel free to tell us.
But in the absence of that, our medical advisers, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Paul Kelly, the head of the Vaccines Advisory Group, Professor Brendan Murphy, the head of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, Professor Alan Cheng, are clear and absolute, clear and absolute, that a full safety process is a fundamental step forward.
There are other countries that are in extremis where we are seeing in some cases over a thousand deaths a day, in some cases over 3000 deaths a day, where we have over 50,000 cases a day in the UK, where we have over 200,000 cases a day in the United States.
And those are conditions which we hope we never face.
But sometimes people are urging us to follow what those countries with the greatest challenges are doing, rather than to join with those countries that have been the most successful.
Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, the jurisdiction of Taiwan. All of these are following a very similar timeframe, and all have been successful.
I know a couple of them at the moment are having their own challenges with significant outbreaks, but that commitment to safety is important to protect Australians.
It’s important for confidence, and confidence is important for uptake, and uptake is ultimately what provides the best protection for Australians.
So we’ve listened to the medical advisers, and we’ll continue to listen to the medical advisers.
And I have said on many occasions, for those who have different views, our advice, our advice comes from the Australian medical advisers.
And there’ll be others with different views, but we’ve kept Australia safe and will continue to keep Australia safe by listening to them. I’ll finish with that and say thank you very much.
(Inaudible) on why you aren’t contradicting Craig Kelly? Why aren’t you using your free speech to put down ideas that say the vaccine isn’t necessary?
I do believe the vaccine is necessary. I couldn’t be clearer. This press conference is about precisely that.
And let’s step back for a minute – and I’m not going to enter into a debate, respectfully – what we have done in a world of 600,000 cases and a country of six cases is work with the best medical advisers and the best medical regulators in the world.
You were just asking us to potentially override our medical regulators, and I respect your right to do that. But I happen to disagree with you, Paul. Slightly quizzical that when you’re talking about medical regulators, your previous question was about overriding the medical regulators. But I respect your right to do that.
And I may disagree with people, but my job is to set out our advice. And our advice is that the vaccines that our medical regulators have chosen will keep Australians safe.
But they’ll do that on the basis of a full assessment. And that assessment allows us to have confidence.
And that confidence allows us to have take up. And take up allows us to protect as many Australians as possible, not just those that take it, but those that will be protected by those that have taken it.
And there will be many who have different views. But our view is that our medical advisers are strong and clear and the best in the world.
I want to finish by thanking our medical advisers and in particular Karen Price and our general practitioners.
They’ll have a huge role to play going forwards in protecting Australians.
But we’re in the best hands in the world with some of the best results in the world. And we’ll continue to keep Australians safe in 2021. Thank you.
Minister Hunt, what was your reaction to Mr McCormack’s comments this morning about- do you think he went too far in comparing likening the Capitol Hill incident to the Black Lives Matter protests in America earlier?
I’m sorry, I haven’t heard those, so I won’t respond to a summary. I’d rather see the original. All right. Thank you very much, everybody.