The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
9 July 2021
INTERVIEW WITH PATRICIA KARVELAS
Topics: New South Wales COVID, COVID-19 vaccine rollout, booster shots.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt is my guest tonight. Welcome to the programme.
New South Wales case numbers continue to grow at a rather fast rate, there are now more than 400 locally acquired cases in that state. Will today’s announcement of the earlier arrival of Pfizer be any help in tackling this outbreak?
Well, the more people that are vaccinated, obviously, the better. But the immediate task is to ensure that two things occur. Firstly, that people do the difficult but absolutely necessary thing of staying at home and keeping distance. And we know how to do it, we’ve done it before. But that’s the immediate task right now.
Secondly though, that they get tested, if they do have symptoms. So they’re the absolutely critical elements now, and if you are able to be vaccinated, if you’re eligible, please come forward to do that. And it’s tough, it’s challenging, obviously there’s support.
But right now, by simply staying at home, keeping distance, you can protect the lives of everybody else, and protect the lives of, in particular, our senior Australians.
Has there actually been any change to how many doses will be available each week compared to what was forecast in the horizons document?
Yes. And we’ve been looking at a base of about 600,000. We have been working very, very strongly to bring that forward. I’ve been probably been speaking twice a week with my counterpart at Pfizer Australia, the head of Pfizer Australia, Anne Harris. And working, working, working, always to bring forward.
We’re able to bring forward an extra 400,000 for July, now instead of 2.4 million for August, we’re looking at 4.5 million. And we’re looking at that million to be a base rate going forwards, on a weekly basis.
What that means is more earlier, better coverage. And that’s a significant, I think, national achievement. But now our task is to encourage people to be vaccinated. People have been very good coming forward.
Yesterday was the second highest day we’ve had, and we’ve now got almost 8.9 million doses which have been administered. And significantly, over 72.5 per cent of the over-70s have been vaccinated.
The Horizons document said that 650,000 to 750,000 doses of Pfizer a week would be there for July and August. That suggests, what, up to 6.7 million doses over that period? So how has that changed today? Is it just that you’re getting them?
Well, what we’ve got now is we’ve gone to the million a week, and that will consistent right through August. And in particular, we were on track to receive 2.4 million for July, we were able to increase that to 2.8 million, that had previously been announced.
And for August, the 600,000 a week would have meant about 2.4 million, but we’re able to deliver 4.5 million, and then we’re looking at a consistent figure of that million through the course of September.
So what that does is it brings forward extra vaccines, it means more earlier. And therefore, there’s not as much pressure in the last three months. Better protection, but also easier access for people at an earlier time.
Okay. And does the eligibility change? Can you open it up for under 40s as a result?
Not yet, no. It’s a very reasonable question. The answer is not yet. What it’s likely to do, of course, is as we achieve more of the vaccinations between the 40 to 59 group, that brings forward the capacity to do it.
But we’ve still got a very considerable number to do in that age group. People are being fantastic in coming forwards. But, for example, in the 50 to- or 50 plus age group, we’re now at 55.5 per cent, or a little bit over that.
So there’s still a lot to do, between 40 and 59, but people are coming forwards, they’re looking to be vaccinated, they’re being patient. But they’re rightly pushing to be vaccinated at the earliest possible time.
So today’s announcement, to be clear, brings, by a month forward, some of those doses, so you get them earlier. But, what is the Federal Government doing to secure more doses overall?
Because I’ve seen the Pfizer statement, and they say for 2021, the doses remain the same.
Yes, well, 40 million doses will more than cover the population given that we’ve already administered over 4.4 million first doses for AstraZeneca, and 900,000 second doses for AstraZeneca.
So that figure will grow, I think, to, all up, somewhere in the order of 10 million AstraZeneca plus, in addition to 10 million Moderna. So between those three vaccines, that’s 60 million vaccines this year. And that’s before we get to NovaVax.
And how about booster shots? You know, no self-interest here. Although, maybe some, I’ll admit I’m fully vaccinated now, because I was able to do that.
Well, you’re entitled to have self-interest on this.
No, I’m owning it, actually. But also, I think people are interested who are fully vaccinated, even if it’s- you know, lots of people aren’t, I admit. When will get these booster shots? Because we need them, don’t we?
So, there’s not been a final decision, it’s a medical decision, but we are planning as if we have to do that. And so, the planning is, during the course of 2022, we have secured- all up, we have 51 million NovaVax. NovaVax is a protein vaccine, it’s had excellent clinical trial results. But it’s still developing its final submission to the TGA, which is our medical regulator.
Some of those will arrive this year, but it’s there as both a reserve in case something went wrong with the supplies that we have for this year, although they’re looking very, very strong and solid. But it’s- in particular, there as a booster for next year, our advice is a protein vaccine.
It’s an excellent booster. Moderna, we also have 15 million coming next year, which again, is an excellent booster, a very adaptable platform. And so each one of the mRNA vaccines. So between them, we have over 60 million vaccines for next year, which have already been contracted. So we’re in a strong position with regards to both this year, but also the booster program has been contracted, and we’re just planning through the options which will be developed off the latest medical science from around the world.
As we see variants, as we see the longevity of the vaccine, the effectiveness, then, because we have multiple options, we’re in a position to deliver the best outcome for the Australian people.
If you’re just tuning in, this is Radio National Drive. My guest is the Health Minister, Greg Hunt. National Cabinet has supported a trial of home quarantine, with South Australia to take the lead.
Who will be eligible for the trial? Is it just for returning the South Australian Paralympians, ADF personnel? What do we know?
Obviously the details will be finalised by South Australia in conjunction with Chief Medical Officer.
But the essential principles are that people who are- who have been vaccinated in Australia, because we have the strong, clear verification – we will in due course, obviously, be working with the world on mutual recognition of vaccination certificates – but people who’ve been vaccinated in Australia who have left, who are returning and who are able then to do the trial of the two-week quarantine.
So having agreed in principle, then having agreed on the back of that trial with South Australia, now we work with them on the timetable, on the specifics. But those broad parameters – Australian, vaccinated, returning, two weeks home quarantine.
Having been through the ACT quarantine system twice, the home quarantine system where they check up on you randomly via the police. You’ll have telephone calls, you’ll have a knock at the door. I’ve seen an absolute gold standard in home quarantining, and that ACT model is, I think, one that we look at as a national gold standard.
Very good in other states and territories; it’s just that I’ve experienced that ACT one twice. That’s the sort of standard that we’ll be expecting and which we know that South Australia will be delivering.
Just moving back to New South Wales, if we can, some members of the New South Wales Government have suggested we need to learn to live with the virus. What do you make of that argument?
I think that’s a recognition that over time the world will have what’s called an endemic virus. So in the same way that the flu is, it’s in the world, it mutates. This is a disease which is not going away from the world.
We’ll have the largest, fastest vaccination program the world has seen. That will significantly slow and reduce spread of the virus. But all the advice is that this is now so widespread that it will continue to mutate.
Now the form that that will take, that’s medical history that will be determined in the future. But the fact that it is a virus that is likely to be with the world for a long while, I think is the honest answer and explanation.
And therefore, what we’ll have to do is vaccinate to continue to maintain our defences and then to be able to progressively open to the world when we have safe levels of vaccination. And we are able to continue to learn from the rest of the world.
I remember there were many people who challenged the fact that we were doing full and thorough assessment of our vaccines. But the fact that we did meant, in the words of Professor Huyen Tran from the Alfred Hospital, that we were able to detect the thrombosis issue much earlier in our vaccination program and to protect people and to identify the treatment.
So we learn, and everybody learns from each other. Other health ministers have often said to me, gosh, we really deeply wish we were in Australia’s position. And they learn from us. We learn from all the different things we see around the world.
Labor’s health spokesman Mark Butler says there have been mixed messages with a large number of retail stores still open in Sydney. Do you think there has been a bit of confusion?
No, with respect, I think the New South Wales Government has been very clear in their messaging. But what they’ve done is they’ve stepped up the enforcement, compliance, and the strength of the position.
So as people are staying at home, so as they’re not visiting families, we do know, you know, whether it’s been a rugby league party or whether it’s been, you know, visits in larger numbers and perhaps should have been the case to homes, that these have been potential sources of transmission.
So as a result of that, they’ve responded to. The overwhelming majority of people are doing an amazing job. There’s a small number that have not done the right thing.
And what New South Wales is saying, and what I would say, is, please stay at home. If you inadvertently go out and spread the virus, it could be your mum or your grandma or your grandad. It could be somebody else’s grandparents, it could be a younger person that catches the disease, and we know, looking around the world, that this can be catastrophic.
We also know, looking at Australia, we can do this. We’ve done this before. We’ll do it again. We’ll get through it. But right now, all our thoughts are with the people of Sydney and others in the broader regions that are affected.
We know we can get through it, but it will require that deep sense of international support and fortitude.
Thanks so much for joining us.
That’s the Health Minister Greg Hunt.