The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
20 July 2021
INTERVIEW WITH KIERAN GILBERT
Topics: COVID vaccine rollout
Let’s go live to Melbourne, the Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt, joins me. I know it’s a very busy day for you with lockdowns in a number of places, a number of jurisdictions.
Will New South Wales be getting more of the latest order of the latest Pfizer batch, Mr Hunt, given the crisis they’re dealing with?
So we’ve already announced that New South Wales would receive a similar figure to Victoria. Both states received 150,000 Pfizer. Beyond that, there’s a per capita rollout and that’s a principle which has been well respected by the National Cabinet.
What we are seeing though is every state and territory will have significant increases in the total Pfizer, either to the state system and in particular what we’re doing now is bringing on board the general practices to deliver Pfizer exactly as we said we would.
This week there will be over 1250 general practices that have come on board for Pfizer, that’s increasing. We will have gone from 100,000 units, just over 100,000 units of Pfizer last week to 250,000 for the GPs this week, spread around the country, on top of what we’re providing to the states.
So these distributions are increasing in every state and territory but with those specific matching allocations for Victoria and for New South Wales.
Given the severity of the situation in New South Wales though, did you think about providing even more to New South Wales? Daniel Andrews himself said he wouldn’t begrudge that, given the crisis the state faces there.
Well, that’s exactly what we’ve done. There’s 150,000 Pfizer that’s been made available. 150,000 AstraZeneca that’s been made available. But then there’s the growth in the GP distributions this week, we have the million Pfizer arriving. What we’re seeing is increased distributions across the country.
We’ve just had a record 975,000 vaccinations in the last week. Then only yesterday, 169,000 vaccinations, 15,000 higher than the previous record for the first day of the week. So we’re seeing major increases and now we’re at 10.3 million vaccinations.
So the programme is seeing very large numbers of vaccines distributed, very high numbers of vaccinations. I think sometimes people ask about the US, this is the equivalent of two million vaccinations a day in the US on a per capita basis.
So we’re seeing that increase occurring right now. But the testing, the tracing and the distancing, we know are fundamental to immediate containment. And what we are seeing is real signs of hope.
But if we had paid Pfizer more, would we have got the vaccine sooner? If we’d paid Pfizer more, would we have got it sooner?
Was one of the problems initially in getting a deal done that the pharmaceutical companies demanded that we waive compensation rights if patients died? Was that one of the hurdles initially?
No, the main thing was to ensure that there were clinical trial results which showed promising outcomes.
And we actually struck five deals by November of last year. We had AstraZeneca, we had University of Queensland, we had Pfizer, which was the MRNA that was recommended by SCITAG, the Brendan Murphy committee, in the volumes that were recommended and the volumes that were provided by the company. And we also had Novavax and we had the international COVAX facility.
So one of the things I want to knock on the head is this fantasy that’s about, that more could have been had earlier. We were able to obtain all of the early vaccinations, we added subsequently to later on in the year once it was clear that it was working, but that was not available earlier, either then or subsequently.
What we’ve been able to do by working with the company is bring forward three million doses from Q4 to Q3 and we’re always working to expand on that. But the Prime Minister and myself wrote to the head of Pfizer in May when we believed we had the best possible chance of that outcome, but we’d been working behind the scenes throughout.
But we could have had more doses earlier if we’d spread our bets more to other companies like Moderna and others. If you’d spread the bets more, we could have had more sooner. No?
No, that’s the point. In the most intense global environment that we have seen in peacetime, what we knew is that we had to rely on ourselves and that’s why we put in place our domestic production in Australia.
It was precisely because the international supply was constrained and understandably, companies were producing for the country of manufacture and they were focussing on mass death and dealing in that environment.
We got our fair share, but we also knew that the only way to guarantee that supply was to create our own sovereign domestic manufacturing. And the fastest way to do that was with one of the vaccines, which has been the global backbone, which is AstraZeneca.
Without that, we would be in a very different situation. With that, we’ve been able to ensure that we’ve got now over 75 per cent of the over 70s vaccinated. That has made a massive difference in terms of life right across.
That’s only one dose though, isn’t it? That’s only one dose.
Sure, but that’s an incredibly important part of saving lives. And so 75 per cent of over 70s- It’s a 12-week program with AstraZeneca, as in the UK.
This was the vaccine that was the backbone of the UK program. It’s in well over 100 countries. The advice that I’ve had is there are over 700 million doses have been distributed.
What we’ve done in Australia is make sure that we actually had five contracts initially and then we’ve subsequently added Moderna. But there was no early volumes that were available.
But with those over 70, 27 per cent- just to clarify, 27 per cent or thereabouts are fully vaccinated, 70 to 75 age group. You say that they’re still protected. Is it good enough, though? Only a third of our over 70 to 75, that age bracket are fully vaccinated.
Well, that’s a 12-week period between first and second doses. If some want to ignore the medical advice, ignore the advice of the TGA, and ignore the advice of the Australian Technical Advisory Group and make other recommendations, that’s a matter for them.
There is an ATAGI recommendation with regards to the hotspots. But what we have done is follow the medical advice.
How is it that Australia is in a position where, tragically, we’ve lost five lives this year, but the world has lost officially 2.25 million, and the World Health Organisation says the true figure is between two to three times greater, so let’s call it 5 million, so five agonising losses versus 5 million. It’s because we’ve followed the medical advice and we’ve acted early. So let’s put all this into perspective. We knew that the global supply was constrained.
But is some of the advice wrong? Like we’re last- we’re near the last of the OECD, was some of the advice wrong?
Well, the advice was very clear, and that was to have, exactly as you suggested, a multiplicity of vaccines, which is exactly what we did, but because we knew the international supply was constrained, we made sure there was domestic production. And to be frank, the two most significant things are saving lives and livelihoods.
We’ve had one of the most significant results in terms of lives saved, 30,000 lives saved versus the OECD, as you recommend, if our average of per capita losses were the same as the OECD. 45,000 lives saved, if you compare with the UK or the US.
And unemployment, which is at 4.9 per cent and jobs are higher than before the pandemic. All those things have happened.
What’s actually happening now – and this is the thing that brings the country together – people are coming forward. Almost a million people in the last week to be vaccinated. A record first day of the week yesterday, a record week last week, up a million Pfizer that have landed in Australia. And we’ve been able to secure those supplies.
This was always going to be a program over the course of 2021.
How soon will we get the targets? How soon will we get the targets from the Doherty Institute? My understanding is you’ll have it within a week or so. Will it include kids? Will we see numbers for the over 12 age bracket?
So we haven’t received them yet, so I won’t pre-empt what it is. There are two questions there. The Therapeutic Goods Administration is making an independent assessment of a proposal by Pfizer to do as they’ve done in America and to licence Pfizer for 12 to 15 year olds.
It’s currently 16 plus. And if that’s a green light, then the Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation will also consider it. And if that’s a green light, then we have the supplies to provide them to kids 12 to 15, and we’ll proceed to do that.
By the end of the year?
The second thing- we’ll respond once we receive the information. So we’ll deal with that. The second thing is that we have the vaccines to cover the population.
We have 40 million Pfizer, we have 10 million Moderna, we have the AstraZeneca and of course, we have the Novavax due later on in the year.
The next thing, though, is we continue to work with the medical authorities on this. But right now, we’re getting very large numbers of vaccinations on a mass scale and Australians are coming forward and we continue to urge them to do that.
Okay. Health Minister, Greg Hunt, I appreciate your time, as always.