The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
17 October 2021
Topics: New COVID-19 treatments; vaccination update; Doherty modelling, border restrictions; Environment.
I’m delighted to be joined today by the Chief Medical Officer of Australia Professor Paul Kelly, and we have some important new announcements to make with regards to treatments for COVID-19 has, as part of the vaccination and treatment program which allows Australians to return to their lives to be protected, to be able to go about their business as safely as possible and it’s giving people freedoms back as part of the national roadmap roadmap, it supports the Roadmap, but above all else, it’s about saving lives and protecting lives.
Australia has purchased 15,000 units of a breakthrough new treatment, Ronapreve.
Ronapreve is a monoclonal antibody. It’s given in the hospital environment as an intravenous treatment. What that means is, significantly, it has a 70 per cent reduction in the likelihood of hospitalisation or loss of life, on the early results.
Now, obviously these results are to be tested through clinical use. But I’m delighted to be able to say that Australia has secured 15,000 units or doses of Ronapreve, made by Roche, and those doses are expected to be in Australia during the course of October, and subject to TGA approval, which is advanced, and I’m advised is proceeding very positively, will be made available to patients in hospital in October, for helping to slow the development and to reduce the consequences of COVID-19. Paul will set out the circumstances and the use.
We’ve also secured 500,000 units of the new Pfizer drug, which is being prepared, and this is an oral antiviral that will be available in 2022 subject to completion of all of the clinical trials and the processes to ensure that it’s fully registered.
So that is another important part. We have one, a hospital based treatment, the second, 500,000 units of Pfizer’s new oral antiviral, which can be provided early in the course of the disease, or where there’s been exposure to the disease and these complement what we’ve already purchased on behalf of Australia.
So, there have been four frontline treatments that complement vaccination but do not replace vaccination: Sotrovimab, which is already in use in Australia, 31,000 units of Sotrovimab have been acquired, of which 20,000 have now arrived in country. That is being applied in hospitals and making a significant difference to the health of patients.
Secondly, we have Molnupiravir, which we have already indicated has been purchased, 300,000 units. That’s due to arrive in early 2022, another oral medication and antiviral.
Then, today, two new treatments which will help save lives and protect lives in the fight against COVID-19. The first of those, Ronapreve, 15,000 units. The second is the new Pfizer oral antiviral. Paul will set out the uses and circumstances of those.
Now, in relation to the vaccination program, some really important milestones have been reached. 197,000 doses delivered yesterday. We are now right on the cusp of reaching 32.5 million doses, we’re at 32.494 million doses, and that’s just an incredible number of Australians who are coming forward to be vaccinated. Significantly, we’re now at 84.6 per cent of first doses and 67.8 per cent of the eligible over 16 population that are fully vaccinated.
So, 84.6 per cent and 67.8 per cent in terms of national first and second dose rates. Very importantly, what that means is we’re at almost 2 million, 1.95 million vaccinations in seven days, 3.8 million vaccinations in 14 days and 7.9 million vaccinations in 28 days. So you can see the rate at which Australia has been vaccinating, and for the last nine weeks, each week has seen between 1.8 and 2 million vaccinations a week.
And so the fact that we’ve been able to reach and sustain these high levels has provided very rapid protection for Australians. Every Australian who seeks to be vaccinated will have the opportunity to be vaccinated during the course of October. There are large numbers of doses available in states and territories. There are places in GPs and pharmacies and in state and commonwealth clinics that are available for people to go and be vaccinated.
As I look forward, there are also some significant milestones. We have now passed over 95 per cent of people 60 and above with first doses, and over 80 per cent of people 60 and above with second doses. So the most vulnerable cohort in the population has a 95 per cent first and an 80 per cent second dose vaccination rate. As we look forward over the course of the next week, we’re likely to see some very important milestones reached nationally.
In the next week we are likely to pass 85 per cent first and 70 per cent second doses, a very critical part of the roadmap being reached nationally. New South Wales has obviously now reached the 92 per cent first and 80 per cent second mark, and that’s a very important milestone for Australia.
New South Wales is now one of the most highly-vaccinated societies in the world with that 92 per cent mark. But also ACT will soon pass 80 per cent second, Victoria will pass 70 per cent second doses and 90 per cent first doses, most likely within the course of the next week. Tasmania will probably pass 70 per cent second very shortly, and South Australia and NT will pass 60 per cent second doses. So, right across the nation, real progress.
But the message going forward is: new medicines to help protect you, but they don’t replace vaccination. Vaccination is still our frontline protection, it’s the best way of protecting yourself and your family, and if you haven’t been vaccinated yet, everywhere in Australia the opportunity is there right now to be vaccinated over the course of this week and over the course of the next two weeks.
And if you have been vaccinated and you are due for your second dose, please don’t delay. The second dose is critical in providing that full protection.
So, an important day, important steps forward for health, important steps forward for protection, and important steps forward particularly, as we’re seeing in New South Wales for people regaining their normal lives and being able to reunite with friends and family at weddings and funerals, for births, for all of the great events of human life. Over to Professor Paul Kelly, Chief Medical Officer.
Thank you, Minister. So, just to add to what the Minister has talked about with this announcement today with the pharmaceutical interventions. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve relied firstly exclusively and still mostly on non-pharmaceutical interventions to control the pandemic.
So, during 2020 and for a large part of 2021, we’ve very heavily relied on those non-pharmaceutical interventions. The public health and social measures, including lockdowns, where necessary. The test, trace, isolate and quarantine work of our tireless public health workforce, as well as the international border.
So, as we go forward with the vaccination program, and as the Minister has said, some really great milestones happening today and through this week in terms of vaccination coverage, we’re now adding that extra protection that treatments can give. So, if we think about it in three sort of layers, there are ways of preventing the illness, and absolutely the first way and the most important way for that is vaccination.
But there are now treatments that are being developed, antiviral treatments that will actually assist to prevent infection, or prevent even mild or asymptomatic infection and disease. So, one of those is Molnupiravir, which has already been announced, plus this Pfizer combination drug, antiviral drug, which has been announced today.
The next phase is to treat to prevent severe infection. So we have, already, Sotrovimab, which the Minister has mentioned. That’s being used now, right now, particularly in the ACT, in Victoria and New South Wales, and already making an effect.
Today we add the Ronapreve combined monoclonal antibody treatment. And so once it gets through all of the final trials and the TGA approvals, then that will be available next year. And then the final group of treatments is to treat severe illness. We have Remdesivir, which has been available in Australia for the whole of this year, as well as Dexamethasone.
Dexamethasone is an old drug, which we’ve used for many years in Australia, which dampens down the immune response in that severe illness, people in intensive care, it’s the immune system overreacting to the virus, which is being treated with that. Remdesivir is another antiviral drug which is used in that severe end of the spectrum and has been used and is currently being used in intensive care in our hospitals right now.
So all of those things are important. Going forward, the vaccination continues to be important. I would echo the Minister’s call. This is the time to be vaccinated. If you have not been vaccinated yet with your first dose, please go now.
In all states and territories of Australia, it is very, very easy to make an appointment, or indeed to turn up, in various places, without an appointment. Do that this week. If you are due for your second dose, please go and get your second vaccine this week, make that appointment, go and get your jab. We cannot rely on borders any more.
The virus is here in Australia, we need to learn to live with it and we are learning to live with it. It means that we need to be protected, particularly those in vulnerable groups.
So, of course, this is the first phase, as the Minister said. The Scientific Advisory Group, of which I’m the deputy chair, has given advice to government, government has taken that advice, and this is the pre-purchasing agreements that we’re going forward with for these new treatments, as we did last year with the vaccination program. And it will always be subject to the usual regulatory approvals from TGA. Once that’s done, we’ll go into the details of how these medicines will be used into the future.
The only other thing I just wanted to mention today was that yesterday- you will recall that we had put a pause on the quarantine free travel to and from New Zealand. Certainly people coming from New Zealand were currently having to go into 14 days’ hotel quarantine, like people from the rest of the world.
Just looking at the situation in the South Island of New Zealand, where they have not had any cases since last year, there is very good work being done to stop people from the North Island going to the South Island, so that is not a risk.
So yesterday we have reopened quarantine free travel from the South Island of New Zealand from Tuesday, midnight. And so that is available. We hope to allow anyone who’s been in the South Island of New Zealand, whether they’re Australians, New Zealanders or other nationalities, as long as they’ve been there for 14 days, to come in quarantine free.
Both New South Wales and Victoria have agreed to allow that to happen. And so I understand there are some Australians that have been stuck in the South Island of New Zealand for some time, and we’d welcome them home. So, I’ll leave it there, Minister, and we’ll go to questions.
Thanks very much, Paul. If we can start on the left-hand side of the room as you’re looking up at Paul please, and then move across.
So it’ll be me, then. Minister, a couple of months ago when the Doherty modelling was released, those vaccination benchmarks of 70 and 80 per cent for the gradual reopening of the country, there was something of a double trigger involved in that plan in that some states might get there quicker, but no one was going to get left behind.
Everyone was meant to move as one there. Do you think the decision by Dominic Perrottet to open up quarantine free international travel for Australian citizens and permanent residents effectively means that the National Plan has been torn up and that every state and territory is just going to continue going on its own path here?
No, I’d, respectfully, view it the opposite way. We think that what New South Wales is doing is in line with the National Plan, it reaffirms the National Plan. The other thing is that the National Plan is backed by almost a million extra doses for 12 to 15 year olds that were not part of the Doherty modelling.
Paul can speak to this. We’re at almost a million doses for 12 to 15 year olds and that will continue to grow. We’re seeing very fast acceleration in terms of the second doses for that cohort, which is important. But it is a bit patchy.
New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT have very high 12 to 15 year old rates. WA, Queensland, Tasmania, we’re keen to get those rates lifted. What’s the point in all of that? New South Wales will have achieved the double benchmark of not just 80 per cent first and 80 per cent second, but 92 per cent first and 80 per cent second, and it’s moving, in our judgement, in line with the National Plan. Paul?
So, I agree, Minister. The National Plan is a gradual reopening of not only the international borders, but of society in general.
Since that original modelling was done we’ve had the rapid increase in the take up of 12 to 15 year old vaccination that is important. I think the other thing to stress is the absolutely incredibly high rates of first doses.
The original modelling from the Doherty did not consider that we would be getting well over 90 per cent first doses by the time we get to even the 70 per cent second dose level and the 80 per cent second dose level. So if we look around, particularly at the three states, the two states and the ACT, that are experiencing local transmission now, they are getting very high first dose vaccination rates, and that gives a range of protection as well.
Is there a risk that those (Inaudible) jurisdictions will remain locked off from the rest of the country as a result of that situation?
Well, of course border issues, domestic border issues are a matter for the states. But they are moving ahead. They’ve done well with their vaccination rollout, and they will be making those decisions domestically as they see important decisions about protecting versus getting on with opening up society.
Thanks, Minister. The state and territory vaccination numbers hide pockets of those regional parts of those states and territories where vaccination rates are in some cases much lower. What is the Commonwealth doing to help boost vaccination levels in those areas as we start open up?
And perhaps, for Professor Kelly, you spoke then, about public health and social measures that we’ve relied on throughout the pandemic. How long do you see us using those sorts of measures like mask wearing, and social distancing, into the future as our vaccination rates do increase?
Sure. Let me start, if I may. In terms of regional vaccination, the advice I have from the Health Department, is that, generally, regional vaccination rates are higher, even, than urban vaccination rates.
That’s been one of the great achievements of the roll out to date. And when we were designing it early on, we wanted to use Commonwealth clinics, state clinics, but in particular we knew, that one of the strongest ways to get into the regions was through GP’s and pharmacies.
And our GP’s and our pharmacists have stood up, amazing. At the same time, there are areas, particularly some communities- and I was looking at these numbers only yesterday, we have very strong numbers in Indigenous communities, in New South Wales, in Victoria, in the ACT. In particular, in parts of WA and Queensland, much lower numbers.
So, we’re working with the communities, with those state governments, local governments, the RFDS, so the Roya Flying Doctor Service, and we’re working with the Aboriginal Medical Services, or the Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations, on local, targeted responses.
It’s not a question of access, as Pat Turner from NACCHO said before the Senate last Thursday, she was clear and categorical on that. It is a question on confidence and uptake, and so we’re working in those communities. In some cases, it’s house to house, and Lieutenant General Frewen is overseeing that process.
But working with the states and territories; WA has done some really outstanding working in parts of the Kimberly, to try to go to community to community with tailored responses. And we have had, if we’re honest, some very pernicious anti-vaxx messaging going into those communities, and that can be from outside of Australia, it can be inside of Australia, and sadly in some cases from within communities, as Pat Turner was saying.
So, we’re fighting that misinformation, but we’re also going house to house, leader to leader, and community to community, going back and back and back and just giving multiple opportunities. Paul?
Yeah, thanks Minister. So, on Indigenous, I think the other thing I would add, is that we are- there is a gap, there’s no question that has emerged over the last couple of months in the Indigenous rollout.
But that is being turned around remarkably quickly. So on any given day over three per cent of the Indigenous population of Australia is being vaccinated now. And so, that gap will close very quickly. There are some (Inaudible) where this is difficult, as the Minister has said. Particularly in those states that do not currently have local transmission.
And it’s an interesting contrast with, and Minister you may want to talk to your discussion with your US counterpart. Did you want to mention that?
Yeah sure. So, I spoke with Secretary Becerra, the US Health Secretary, so their Health Minister equivalent, on Friday. What we noted is two things. One is that our regional outcomes were, generally, they felt stronger, that was a mixture of our GP and pharmacy network.
But also, the fact that there’s not the political divide here that has characterised some of the rollout in America. Equally, they’ve had some very strong success with their First Nations leader, the particular tribal structure in America.
But also coupled with the tragic and catastrophic First Nations infections has led to the impact.
One of the challenges here is that some in our Indigenous communities have said because of the very low rate of either infection, and in particular loss of life- I think the loss of life is about one-sixth of that of the general population in Australia, that it’s not an immediate clear and present danger. It is. Wherever you are, it’s a clear and present danger.
So, one of the things, looking at America, is working with Indigenous leaders on a community by community basis. Their capacity to influence is enormous, and to bring them on board to be very strongly pro-vaccination. Roger Cook, WA Minister has given me the example of some communities where even though the vax has been present there’s been a very widespread rejection in their communities. And they’re fighting that, they’re working on it.
So, it’s a real national partnership, and working with the media, working with the communities, working with Indigenous leaders, working across every front to try to break down that resistance in some pockets. Claire? Oh, sorry, Paul and then Claire.
Sorry, there was one other- one other question, Minister. So, just on public health and social measures. So, certainly the Doherty modelling has been very clear that because of the Delta virus- the Delta variant of the virus being so much more infectious, the so called R-Naught, the underlying ability of the virus to be able to spread in the community is much higher than it was last year with the original virus, or with some of the other variants we’ve seen.
So, vaccine- vaccine alone will not be enough, to suppress the circulation of the virus, at least in the next few months.
And so, public health and social measures, some of them, at a hopefully a relatively light touch way of dealing with this, will be important, and that’ll be a- we’ll be back to the suppression strategy of making sure we are not overwhelming our healthcare system. And that will be an important component of that, and we’ll be really watching that very closely, and we’ve done all of that reparation in place to be able to check that, as well as to be able to support the healthcare systems, both primary care and hospitals, as we go through this next few months particularly.
Minister, under Phase C of the National Reopening Plan, in addition to allowing the return of Australians from overseas, it does note that we could have more green lane travel for international visitors.
Is that something we’re still exploring, or are we going to hold off until Phase D, given how well the vaccine rollout is going now? And at the Phase D, there’s no vaccination rate attached to when we move into that phase, which is when international travel fully reopens.
So, are we still pursuing any green lane travel in the meantime? When would we expect to open fully to internal travel? And in light of that, do you think that there could still be a first moving state response where, maybe, New South Wales again will be the first to reopen fully to international travel?
Sure. Look, if I break that up into two parts, green lanes specifically and international travel more generally.
In terms of green lanes, Paul has just announced today that we have reopened to quarantine-free travel from the South Island of New Zealand. That is a green lane in action, and that’s a really important thing, whether it’s for Australians wanting to return home, New Zealanders coming here for weddings or funerals, for family reasons or others.
We are in express discussion with Singapore. I met with the Singapore Minister Ong Ye Kung on Friday, and we were discussing precisely this and expedited a green lane travel proposal for fully vaccinated travellers from Singapore. That’s under- I call it rapid development, and they’re obviously a highly sophisticated society, they have a very good handle on the disease and we’re exchanging approaches.
But the top item on the agenda was a green lane travel bubble with Singapore. So, more generally, in terms of international travel, at this point, there are three phases.
Phase One, is the opening up of double-vaccinated travel for Australians to leave, and for Australians- Australian residents and their immediate family to come back.
Phase Two is for priority visa holders, and this is currently being worked on in collaboration with the states, it’s ultimately a Commonwealth decision, such as students and priority workers.
And Phase Three would be for fully vaccinated international travellers, and that would include tourism, to arrive.
Beyond that, we’ll obviously review the epidemiology, both in Australia and globally, and this is something that Paul is very much responsible for, to look at when it is safe and appropriate for unvaccinated travellers to be able to enter Australia. Paul?
So, that’s right Minister. We’ll be taking a phased approach. Starting with Australians- Australian citizens, permanent residents, their families, coming and going from Australia. Those Australians, and similar others, who are overseas, are welcome back, and then we’ll be moving on from there.
I think the Pacific- other areas of the Pacific is another area of particular focus at the moment, looking at the Pacific Labor Scheme, for example, may countries in the Pacific have not had any cases, or very few cases, over the pandemic.
And so, we’re certainly looking, again, closely, at that. And then others will come after that. I think vaccination status will be the key component of making those decisions.
And just behind Rachel, please, apologies.
Minister, yeah, I don’t think you could see me in the corner over there. Just wondering whether you would support New South Wales introducing rapid antigen testing for school students?
And on a completely different issue, if the National (Inaudible) can’t agree to a net-zero target in their meeting today should the Prime Minister take that target to Glasgow, that 2050 target to Glasgow, anyway?
Sure. Look, I’ll address climate and then rapid antigen testing and turn to Paul, as well, on that.
Just in terms of climate, one of the things that Australia has done, is on our watch, meet and beat our targets. We set 2020 targets and we were able to meet and beat those targets.
I remember back in 2010 and 2013, people said you’ll never do that. We did. Equally, we were able to set targets for 2030, and they happen to be the custodian of the Environment Minister’s role at that time, and we dramatically lifted our ambition from what it was under Labor, when they were in government, from minus five to minus 26 to minus 28 per cent. And people said you’ll never do that without electricity price rises.
We said, we’ve got two responsibilities here, to put the pressure downwards on electricity prices, but to achieve our emissions targets. And, we’re already on track to meet and beat our Paris targets.
And there are very few nations that will have met and beat, Kyoto one, Kyoto two in Paris.
Australia is one of those. And we’ve done that through technology, without taxes, without electricity prices. And in 2010 and 2015, we went through these processes internally, we achieved a unified approach, and actually delivered the results for Australia.
Emissions down, jobs up. That’s what we’ve done, and that’s what we’ll do this time. So, I’m very confident that we will have (Inaudible) approach, and I’ll have- and I’m very confident that we’ll take to Glasgow an appropriate package which is ambitious for emissions, but reduces the pressure on electricity prices and protects jobs in Australia.
On rapid antigen testing, the critical thing here is that the TGA has opened up that process so they’ll available on an in-home basis from the first of November.
The advice I have, I think, is that four tests have now already been approved but many others are under consideration. Over 30 have been approved for medical supervision, and many of those are migrating across. On a particular environment, I might turn to Paul for that with regard to schools.
So, we’re doing a lot of work at the moment, the Commonwealth together with New South Wales, Victoria, and ACT, because- those three jurisdictions because of their current nature of their (Inaudible) of the disease, about how to reopen schools safely, and very importantly, how to keep them open.
We know that, particularly children in primary school, are not able to be protected by vaccination, it’s not yet available to that age group. But of course, teachers, that is available for them and I would encourage every teacher, an, in fact, in two of those jurisdictions it is actually compulsory that they get vaccinated, so that would be helpful.
Anyone who is having close contact with children of that age group, under the age of 12, please, not only get vaccinated for yourself, but to protect those children.
So, there are a range of things we’re looking at as how- other things we can do to protect the children in that age group and to keep the classrooms open. Rapid antigen tests may well be part of that- a part of that process and we’re certainly looking very closely at that once they’re available for self-use, as the Minister said from the first of November.
Great. And then just to Claire’s right, please.
Thanks Minister. Just to Professor Kelly. Health groups have recently warned that responding to climate change is a health emergency.
Do you think there is that medical need for Australia to work towards a policy of net zero emissions by 2050, to drive down greenhouse emissions as soon as possible?
Well, I think the Minister has spoken to the decisions the Government will be making and taking to Glasgow later this month.
I will say that climate change is real, climate change has a very profound health effect and we have seen it here in Australia during the bushfires, we see it every year with increasing cyclone activity, we see it in different patterns of disease.
So, certainly, there is a responsibility from a- with a health lens to consider the effects of climate change and I would certainly welcome anything that can be done to ameliorate the increase in that problem. But that’s- they’re decisions for the government, I will leave that to them to the make those decisions, this month.
And I will just add to that, to reinforce the point that right throughout my own time I have found that there’s been tremendous support for the environmental approach that we have taken.
Remember, we are down now to levels below anything that we saw with regards to our emissions during the course of the time the ALP was in government. We have had emissions plummet under us.
We have met and beaten Kyoto one, Kyoto two, in Paris. And all that contributes to a pathway to lower emissions, both in Australia and globally. And that also contributes to those health outcomes.
So, it’s real, it’s significant, it’s important, for me it’s a personal, lifelong passion. And one of the things here is, don’t let anybody who says we’re not doing it, carry the day because the truth is we are reducing emissions but we are doing it without driving up electricity prices.
Now, the final thing is, two new treatments, two new pathways, two new ways to protect people from COVID-19, but the best possible protection is to continue to be vaccinated.
Congratulations to New South Wales on achieving the 92 per cent first dose and 80 per cent second dose outcomes, but more people are being protected every day.
If you haven’t been vaccinated, please come forward, wherever you are, the opportunity is there to be vaccinated. Take care, thanks very much.