The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
29 November 2021
Topics: new COVID-19 variant; vaccine booster program;
And good morning everybody. I’m joined by the Chief Medical Officer of Australia, Professor Paul Kelly, and we’re providing an update on the latest information and actions in relation to the latest variant of concern, the Omicron variant. And we will work our way through the questions, but we’ll have to join other briefings at midday, I apologise.
So, the first thing is that, as we said on the weekend, Australia is one of the best-prepared countries in the world. We have always assumed – and Paul has said on many occasions, as has Brendan Murphy – that there will continue to be variations and variants. And that is exactly what we’re seeing, but it’s also exactly what we have prepared for as a nation.
In particular, we are one of the most highly vaccinated societies in the world at now 92.3 per cent, 86.8 per cent second doses. Children, 12 to 15, are now at over three-quarters, at 75.7 per cent. And for our 60-plus, so everybody 60 and over, the country is now at an extraordinary 98.9 per cent. So our 70-plus were already at 99 per cent, but now, everybody 60 plus is at that level.
We are one of the most recently and freshly vaccinated societies in the world. And we, after Israel, are one of the earliest nations in the world to have commenced a whole-of-country booster program, with over 415,000 boosters already delivered in Australia.
In relation to the variant, I’ll discuss the actions, and Professor Kelly will take you through the latest information.
The actions taken, as we know, already, we’ve stopped the flights from nine countries in southern Africa. We have temporarily banned non-citizens who have been in those nine countries from entering Australia.
We’ve required Australians who have been in those nine countries to have 14 days’ quarantine. We’ve applied those rules to those coming under bubble arrangements, travel bubbles. And we’ve also required returned Australians who have been in Australia prior to the commencement of these rules to undertake quarantine from 14 days after their- for as long as 14 days after their departure from southern African area.
And we’ve worked with the states and territories, who have put in place public health orders to cover all arrivals with home isolation for a 72-hour period if they’re coming into Australia.
There are additional actions which the Australian Government is now taking.
Firstly, the Prime Minister is convening the National Security Committee today to review the evidence and to review the range of actions in relation to the Omicron variant. We will not hesitate to take additional steps if the medical evidence is that more are required. We convened our first meeting on this on Friday, and on Saturday, we took the steps to cease those flights and to close those borders.
The Prime Minister is, secondly, convening a meeting of the National Cabinet within the next 48 hours to work on ensuring that there’s common understanding, common information, and common actions amongst all of the jurisdictions.
And I want to thank the states and territories for their cooperation over the weekend. We worked at the level of the Prime Minister, the Health Minister, the Secretary of Health, and the Chief Medical Officer to be in touch and provide information to all of our colleagues.
And then, I have, as a third item, asked ATAGI to review the booster timeframes in light of international evidence more generally, with regards to immunity and also in light of the Omicron variant. And we will, as ever, allow them to act independently and continue to follow their advice.
But we’re prepared with supplies. We are already one of the earliest nations in the world, after Israel, to have a whole-of-nation booster program. If they recommend changes, we will follow those changes.
And then, fourthly, I’ve also reaffirmed exactly what was in place. I’ve spoken with the CEOs of Pfizer and Moderna Australia over the course of the last 24 hours. I confirm that, as our contract had already prepared for variants, that if there were a requirement for a change, that they are ready and we are ready.
And both have said, yes, that’s exactly as the contract set out. But – and Professor Kelly will go to this – the early advice is that there are no signs at this stage that there is any breach to the integrity of the vaccine program. But we will follow the medical advice and the scientific evidence on that.
The last thing that I want to say is that to give people confidence, we’re in a vastly different position from where we were on the 1st of February 2020.
We are one of the most highly vaccinated, one of the most recently vaccinated, and one of the first to commence a whole-of-nation booster program from around the world. And perhaps the most interesting to-be-confirmed early evidence, to which I’ll ask Paul to speak, is that much of the early evidence is of a mild set of outcomes and symptoms.
But there is more evidence to come. The world is looking at this. We’re cooperating with our international partners. We’re well-prepared. And we are in, I think, the best scientific hands in the world.
And, on that, I will turn to Professor Kelly.
Thanks, Minister. So, just to reiterate, we have this variant of concern, which has been designated with the Omicron Greek letter, as a few days ago.
So, as of Thursday, we’d never heard of this. As of Friday, we had some information. As of Saturday, it became a variant of concern. And as the Minister said, we met and have taken actions.
This is not the first variant we’ve seen. This virus, we’ve learnt over the last two years, does change. Most of those changes lead to nothing. Some require further information and information-gathering, and then, a small number have led to this variant of concern designation by the World Health Organization.
Now, several of those that have been seen – and we’ve gone through the Greek alphabet, we’re now up to Omicron – several of those started with concern, a lot of concern, about, for example, vaccine effectiveness, or further severity, or more transmission.
Most of those- and some of those have actually lost their concern status because with further information as it’s come, that concern was not justified. So, I think that’s really key.
What we’ve found early on when these things have started is a lot of interest, a lot of information-gathering, a lot of sharing of that information amongst global partners, and that’s another thing I would add to what the Minister has said, is what we have of advantage now compared with early in February, that openness to share and that ability to gather that information in global networks quickly.
So, when you think about the variants of concern, several of them have arrived in Australia. Alpha was the one that was associated with the outbreak last year in several parts of Australia, but particularly the Northern Beaches. Delta is the one that- is the predominant strain at the moment. The others have not really led to anything.
So, we’re still in that gathering stage at the moment on the issues of major interest. And what are they? Firstly, does it transmit between people? Clearly, it does. Is it more or less infectious than other strains?
The information from South Africa is that it has replaced Delta as the major, possibly the only, virus circulating in that country, quite quickly. So, it is transmitting, at least as well as Delta. That seems clear.
The second one is, does it lead to more severe illness? Now, we don’t know that. South Africa has a very different situation to us in terms of the demography of the country, a much younger population than Australia; different health system, and a different laboratory network, et cetera; very high HIV rates, which can affect how any virus and any disease can be transmitted, and particularly the severity of illness. So, we’re still looking at that.
Some reports out of South Africa are that it’s mostly mild. Other information we have is that hospitalisation rates are increasing. So, we need to get further information there, and we are getting that information.
What we do know of the two cases that have so far been diagnosed in Australia – and there may be more, but at the moment, two – both young people, both from South Africa, both fully vaccinated, asymptomatic. That’s just two people.
We know in Hong Kong, two cases there. Young people, a transmission in hotel quarantine from one person to the other, young, fully vaccinated, asymptomatic. So, we need to see whether that is actually the characteristic of this virus. Of course, if it is, that’s very reassuring, but it’s too early to definitely say that.
The third one is about vaccine effectiveness and treatment effectiveness, and the Minister mentioned he’d spoken with the CEOs of our two major suppliers of vaccine at the moment, Moderna and Pfizer.
Both of those companies have put out public statements over the weekend saying that they are on to this. They know that they can change, and this is one of the other major advances in the last two years.
We did not have vaccines; we did not have proven mRNA technology. We have both of those now. We have contracts with those companies. They are already starting on considering what they would do as a specific vaccine if it is needed.
At the moment, we have no definite evidence, either clinical or laboratory or at the population level, that the vaccines are less effective against this virus. We have no evidence of that. And Pfizer and Moderna can move quickly, if that was to come to pass, to make a specific vaccine. That’s a major advantage.
GSK that supplies sotrovimab, which is one of our treatments that is now being used and pre-purchased in Australia, being supplied for the National Medical Stockpile, GSK report that they designed that antibody, that specific antibody, for exactly this purpose. So, it would cover more than what was circulating at the time.
So, they’re confident that that will not be affected, but they will continue to look at that over time.
Just one other thing before I pass to questions would be, or pass back to the Minister, is that we are very well-connected internationally. We’re getting information directly from the World Health Organization, but other countries.
Professor Michael Kidd, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, is in close contact with his South African colleagues in the general practice network. Myself and Dr Sonia Bennett, one of the other deputies, spoke directly with the Israel Minister of Health yesterday and got their thoughts. Very useful and helpful to hear what they were doing.
And we have other meetings planned. Through the AHPPC, the TGA and ATAGI, there are international networks working through that to get as much information as we can about this virus as quickly as we can, and to answer those three crucial questions.
Thank you. I will start with Rachel and then I’ll work across.
Thanks, Minister. Already this new variant has been detected in several countries outside of southern Africa. Are our current travel restrictions a bit pointless, considering the spread outside of that region?
And on the booster ATAGI question, are they looking at maybe bringing it down to four months after you’re fully vaccinated for a booster?
Sure. So two things very briefly. One, in terms of the travel restrictions, we take the medical advice and we act on it. It’s as simple as that.
And so there’s continuous review. That’s the job of Professor Kelly, and he works with the CDNA, the Communicable Diseases Network, with the AHPPC, and with the Australian National Incident Centre, as well as our international partners.
Pretty simple. If further actions are required, further actions will be taken. Tom?
Sorry, on the ATAGI question.
Oh, sorry. So we’ve asked them just to review and if they provide advice that there is a change that’s
required, then we’ll take it.
I wouldn’t speculate on any time frames. We’ve given them an open brief.
Professor, you mentioned we have been through this with several variants previously. How much time do you expect it will take before we have an understanding of the severity question?
So, that’s a tricky one, and relates to the previous question about where the virus is. We know that there are several hundred either confirmed or suspected cases that have gone through that genomic analysis in South Africa.
We know that there are one or two confirmed cases from surrounding countries. There are handfuls of cases from parts of Europe, and so forth, very small numbers at the moment.
So, I think- and what we know so far is the mildness of those that have travelled to other countries. So, it will only be when we have larger numbers that we can make that assessment.
Minister, just in regards to the UK vaccine swap, we’re obviously giving 4 million vaccines back to the UK by the end of the year.
Given we have been repeatedly told that if developing nations don’t get access to vaccines and they get their rates up, mutations will happen, would you prefer to see those vaccines to the UK go somewhere else?
And are you talking with the UK government about potentially giving those vaccines somewhere else?
The UK re-swap has been completed I understand- on my understanding, on the latest advice. But let me get back to you on that.
We’ve provided already 9.2 million vaccines. We have a commitment to 60 million vaccines. We work through COVAX, which is providing vaccines internationally.
And then, of course, my understanding is there’s been strong supply to South Africa, but that’s a matter for that country and others to talk about their particular circumstances.
Minister, just to follow up Tom’s question a little bit, maybe for the Professor, actually. What specifically has you worried about this variant? As you’ve mentioned, we’ve had other variants before that haven’t really taken hold, but we’ve also not had this response to some of the other variants that we’ve had here in Australia.
What particularly has you worried? Is it this potential for transmissibility? Or is this one of these one where it’s- we just don’t know yet, it’s the uncertainty principle, and we’re being safer rather than sorry?
I think it’s the latter, what you’ve said there. What we do know absolutely, and this is another thing that’s changed in the last two years, is an ability to take, to find and describe the genome of the virus very quickly, and then to translate that into a model which demonstrates how different it might be compared with other previous viruses.
Just to be very clear, this is still SARS-CoV-2. It’s not a new virus. It is a change of that particular virus. And we know how to deal with that one and we know how to deal with respiratory viruses. But the main thing is that degree of change is probably what’s made people concerned.
Thank you, Minister. If a mild variant comes along, could that potentially help move us to the next stage of living with COVID as a more common illness?
And if the states push for further restrictions on travel, how will the Federal Government respond?
Look, we’re working very cooperatively with them. And so we’ve been very happy with their work, our response, Professor Kelly is leading that through the AHPPC. And so we’ll just continue to follow the medical evidence.
Minister, what tests now will be done to see how this variant stacks up against the current vaccines? Or is it a case of just waiting and seeing how this plays out in hospitals across the world?
And in regards to booster shots, I think the Prime Minister said this morning there’s been 410,000 booster shots given. How many are overdue? What percentage of those who are eligible have received their current booster shots?
So, there are 415,000 now. Those numbers have been updated with yesterday’s figures since the morning. The next thing is that, at this stage, I understand we have a group of just over 500,000 that are due so it’s an extraordinary turn-up for boosters, well ahead of expectations, well ahead of schedule.
So, I’ve got to say to Australians, thank you. But let’s go back to the core message: If you haven’t been vaccinated, this is an incentive, this is a reason, this is the time. If you’re due for your second, please come forward. And if you’re due for your booster, please come forward.
Sorry, how do you test with the current strain? What happens with the current strain to work out how effective our current vaccines are against it? Do we do anything behind the scenes or just see what happens in the hospitals?
No, we can certainly do laboratory testing, you know, in the test tube, if you like, with the current vaccines. We need virus for that. And so virus is being grown in Australia on that first case that was diagnosed yesterday, and internationally.
So, we can do those first tests there, and then also look at what’s happening.
How long will that take?
That can be as early as days. But we need the virus first.
Minister Hunt, how disappointed will you be if a state like Western Australia introduces harsher measures as a result of this new strain? Would you advise against that? And would you see that as out of lock step with National Cabinet?
Look, our focus is on the National Plan and reopening safely. And as the PM says, remaining safely open. And we’ll continue to follow that.
I was talking on Western Australian radio just before coming here, and they’re now at 86 per cent vaccinated, and people from WA are doing a great job. We’re seeing those vaccination rates increase.
And so I won’t seek to provide advice to the states. They’ve all committed to the National Plan and we’re heading in that direction of progressively opening, but where steps are needed to be taken, then we take them.
Thank you. Professor Kelly, I just wanted to ask you about hotel quarantine and overall quarantine arrangements. What’s your advice to the Federal Government? How would you like to see state and territory leaders respond to this?
And, if I may also, this variant has had a lot of media attention. It would no doubt be causing a bit of anxiety and concern for people watching at home. What’s your advice to Australians that might be feeling a bit scared about this?
Well, certainly, it is called a variant of concern because we are concerned, but we are seeking further advice and information, as we’ve said. Though it is not clear at this stage what the future looks like, and I can’t predict that.
But in train are all those things to look at: transmissibility, severity, and the vaccine effectiveness. And I’ve mentioned some of those things already.
So, alert, not alarmed, is the first component of that. And the first part of your question, sorry, was the.
The hotel quarantine, yeah. So, that’s the matter of the discussions that we’ve had over the weekend. We have been meeting daily at AHPPC. Those discussions are happening there, which will be advice to the two meetings that the minister has already mentioned.
Is 72 hours enough, what New South Wales has imposed for quarantine?
So the 72 hours was along that same line of: let’s do something and wait and see what else we can find out during that period. So, then we will decide.
And I think those, the National Security Cabinet tonight and the National Cabinet tomorrow will be the crucial moments where those decisions will be made.
I will just add something on advice to Australians, and that advice is we’re as well-prepared as any nation in the world. We know that from some of the highest vaccination rates, some of the lowest rates of loss of life, and one of the most well-prepared and strongest hospital systems in the world.
And Australians have achieved outcomes which, yes, they’ve been difficult, but so much of the rest of the world would look at Australia and say: we wish we were in their position.
Is there any justification- is there any medical justification at the moment for states to be considering border closures between themselves? And would you be advising them to hold their nerve if that is a path they’re looking at?
I’ve not received any advice to that effect.
Professor Kelly, what’s your view of the idea that a mild version of COVID that spreads rapidly could contribute to immunity, top-up people’s ability to stave off maybe more severe versions of the virus? Is that a possibility?
I think this morning in my media interviews I said that would be my number one Christmas present. And it would be, if that was how it ended up.
That would be certainly a very interesting change and a positive one. But I just really say very clearly we’re not in that position yet to make that statement, that that’s definitely how it’s going to end up.
But hope for the best and plan for other things.
In light of this new variant, do you have any advice for restrictions such as mask-wearing or number of people allowed in rooms? Should we be reconsidering the internal restrictions?
Well, I think we have, over the last few days, we’ve increased our border measures – one of the key mitigations; we have increased our test, trace, isolate, quarantine measures related to the border – another key figure.
The other one is our public health and social measures. These have always been titrated against the effectiveness and the rollout of the vaccine as our three things that we’ve got in Australia to protect us against the virus.
So, that’s a matter for that same discussion that we mentioned before with National Cabinet.
Are there any plans to revisit a national quarantine facility?
Well, we already have Howard Springs. And Howard Springs is operating. I have been working over the weekend with Natasha Fyles. I understand that Northern Territory will stand up later today. And that’s doing a great job and obviously we’re continuing to develop other facilities.
Given Australia’s vaccination rate, Minister, you said that Australia is probably one of the best countries prepared on that.
Is that reason enough for Australia then to perhaps, you know, pending what happens over the next few days – not take as drastic actions as other countries are taking, given their vaccination rates?
Well, we’re very much in line with the overwhelming majority of countries around the world. This notion of the action in relation to the nine countries.
I should say, we’re blessed with Professor Kelly. He has worked, I think, in Malawi, is that right? And knows that region of the world. We’ve had deep engagement with them throughout.
So, we’re not just prepared in terms of our vaccination rates, but we’re prepared in terms of our hospitals. And what we’ll do is we’ll just continue to follow the medical advice.
Doesn’t this send a contradictory message to Australia? To say, on the one hand, we’re incredibly well-prepared, we have a robust hospital system, a high vaccination rate, one of the highest in the world, and yet every time there is a variant of concern, and we’re saying this could be for years and years and years, we start to dial our restrictions back and forth again.
Doesn’t this put Australians on tenterhooks every time there is a variant of concern?
So, I think, with respect, as Paul set out, there have been other variants of concern where there have been different responses.
What’s our task? What’s our job as a nation? Our job is to make sure that we keep Australians safe and give them a pathway. The National Plan is that pathway.
The National Plan always contemplated, as did our vaccine contract, as did our system design, that we would need to respond to a disease which, by its nature, would have not just variants but variations.
I think the Aus Tracker database has almost 30,000 sequences that have been logged. And so that’s the nature of this disease. And where we have to make changes, then we do.
But we have a clear direction – vaccinations up, progressively restrictions down. Those directions remain constant.
Minister Hunt, there are lots of Australians overseas right now who are contemplating coming home for Christmas. They’re probably watching with concern what’s happening around the world.
I know there’s a lot that needs to happen over the next 24 to 48 hours, but would you recommend to people who are considering coming home for Christmas to actually get on a plane sooner rather than later?
Sure. No, there’s no change in our travel advice, other than for the nine countries in southern Africa. We have put in place a level four do not travel advice in relation to those countries.
So, obviously, people who are in those areas would need to revise their current plans. But we are encouraging Australians who have been there to leave and return, if that fits their plans, but they would have to go into 14 days’ quarantine.
Minister Hunt, where is the Government at with the approach to market on domestic MRNA facility? And what role could that play in combatting future variants?
Sure. So, firstly, I would leave that to Minister Taylor, but he’s just going through the process of finalising a short list.
Secondly, we’ve already shown we can manufacture vaccines here in Australia. We are one of the few countries to have adapted. But we have been able to do that, and we’ve done that with the AstraZeneca production.
And we’ve gone to market because we would like Australia to have the capacity to be one of the very few countries in the world to manufacture MRNA vaccines, whether it’s for coronavirus or for other areas.
So there’s been a very strong response and Minister Taylor, I think, will be in a position to make a statement on that very shortly.
I will have to finish on that. I want to thank everybody and just to remind Australians that we are vastly, vastly better prepared than the overwhelming majority of the world, and I say that with great respect to the immense work that’s been done globally – one of the highest vaccination rates. One of the most recently vaccinated countries. One of the first whole of nation booster programs after Israel and a hospital system which is well prepared.
And there are some heartening signs about what may turn out to be mild symptoms. The coming weeks will show that.
But as we approach Christmas, know that out of all of the countries in the world, Australia is as well prepared as anybody.
Thank you very much.