The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
30 June 2021
Topics: Medical Research Future Fund; COVID19
PROFESSOR KATHRYN NORTH:
Hi. My name is Kathryn North, I’m the director of the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. I’d like to welcome you all here today. I’d first like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which our institute is situated, Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging. And today, it’s an honour and a pleasure, as always, to welcome our Minister for Health and Aged Care, the Honourable Greg Hunt.
Before I introduce Greg, I just want to talk a bit about some of the research that the Minister is announcing today. At MCRI, we are passionate about child and adolescent health and one of our key areas of research, in actual fact, the very reason the institute was initially founded by Dame Elisabeth Murdoch and Professor David Danks 35 years ago, was to gain a better understanding of the causes of genetic or inherited diseases that disproportionately affect children.
We here within the Royal Children’s Hospital, at any one time, about a third of the kids in hospital downstairs are there because of an inherited or a genetic disorder. Genetic disorders are a major cause for chronic disability and disease burden throughout life.
And when a parent is faced with a child who is unable to walk or unable to talk, the questions that they ask us is, why does my child have this? What are the risks to my future children or to the brothers and sisters? And what can you do to fix this? How can you treat it? And I think it’s very important to understand that you can only answer those questions when you have a diagnosis.
Now, when I started in medicine as a neurologist and a geneticist, spookily around the same time that the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute was established, we couldn’t give answers to over 95 per cent to those parents and their kids.
When I started it in the genetics clinic in the late 90s, we were up to about a 10 per cent diagnostic rate. But with the advent of genomic technologies, which are allowing us to sequence all of the genes at very rapid speed, over the last six years, we’ve increased from a 10 per cent diagnostic rate to a 50 percent diagnostic rate for kids with rare genetic disorders, which affects around one in 20 kids.
By getting at five times the diagnostic rate, we’ve also demonstrated that it’s about at a quarter of the cost of the usual diagnostic (INAUDIBLE) that kids undergo. And because of a thoughtful investment by our Federal Government, by the Morrison Government, we have really, across Australia, developed a very strong and national collaborative approach to how we roll out genomics.
And that’s the overarching theme I’d like to comment on around some of the grants that Minister Hunt is announcing today. They’re very much focused on how we now go from this 50 per cent diagnostic hit rate, up to 75, up to 90 per cent and beyond.
After all, we can only properly treat these disorders and help those families if we know what we’re dealing with. So a number of the investments as part of the Genomics Health Futures Mission are really focusing on a (INUADIBLE) approach – firstly how can we use genomics to treat the most critically ill children in intensive care, and this is part of rapid genetic sequencing, something that would usually take months and months and months.
We can now turn the turnaround time of under three days, and it’s providing 50 per cent diagnostic rate with a change in management for 75 per cent of our sickest children. Through our research, this is now the first national project of its kind in the world, and we need to take it to scale and make it the standard of care.
Secondly, if we can’t find a diagnosis right away because we can’t currently with 50 per cent, we don’t simply put this in the too hard basket. We have a number of programs nationally that are focussing on how we use other forms of the latest technologies at the cutting edge to increase those diagnostic rates, from using sequencing of proteins, looking at metabolic studies, using animal models to look at the types of disorders, and even going through to stem cell technologies, which we’ll be hearing a bit about.
We’re also developing an automated platform to continually look at young diagnosed cases. So it’s going back to what I think are like disease cold cases. We can finally reap a diagnosis sometimes after many years for families, which relieves their years of frustration and also unlocks the potential of new treatments for their family members.
And finally, we’re leveraging another major national network around functional genomics, where we are partnering co-led by the Murdoch and the Victor Chang Institute in Sydney and bringing together over 200 laboratories around the country, all of whom are working together to determine the diagnosis in those cases where we don’t yet know the answers, and that’s the Australian Functional Genomics Network.
So these partnerships are going to accelerate the number of genetic variants that we can diagnose and are really going to pave the way to what we’re aiming for, which is for every child and every family to receive the diagnosis that they need.
So finally, when I step back and look at how far we’ve come from those years where I was a frustrated young doctor where we couldn’t provide answers, I’m so filled with optimism that we’re going to meet our goals in increasing diagnostic rates – initially to three quarters then to 90 per cent, aiming for 100 per cent of families.
And I’m so grateful to the Minister for the amazing support you’ve provided for all of this work (INAUDIBLE). Now, it’s my great pleasure to introduce Minister Hunt.
Thank you very much to the great Kathryn North, one of the extraordinary global leaders in children’s medical research, as well as functional genomics, here at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, which of in itself is one of the great paediatric medical research institutes around the world.
And it’s attached, and I think brilliantly so, to the Royal Children’s Hospital, which is one of the world’s leading paediatric hospitals. And so, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, we are blessed to have the combination of Kathryn, the MCRI, and the Royal Children’s Hospital, but also extraordinary national medical leaders such as Professor Andrew Sinclair, Professor Melissa Little, who’s co-chair of the Stem Cells Mission. And we met with Professor Enzo Porrello, and Enzo’s work is about saving beautiful little children with congenital heart disease.
Congenital heart disease is the number one cause of death for infants in Australia. And if we can save one life, through actions in this space then our work and investment will have been justified.
But Enzo’s work, which we are supporting through a nearly $1 million grant under the Medical Research Future Fund STEM Cells mission is about saving many lives and potentially over the years, hundreds of lives of beautiful young children.
And to understand what he’s doing, he’s taking stem cell tissue and then placing it on the heart to repair congenital heart defects. Think of it as a biological Band-Aid for beautiful babies’ hearts. What a thing, and that’s been created here at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.
And this is part of a much broader announcement today of 106 projects worth $180 million to advance practical medical research under the Medical Research Future Fund.
Another example is the University of South Australia where they are using stem cell research to understand, to diagnose, and to contain the spread of neuroblastoma, of brain cancer, again, in beautiful young children.
There can’t be anything more important than this: protecting beautiful babies’ hearts and protecting their brains. And in so doing, it gives them a future. And that’s what the Medical Research Future Fund is about. So I am delighted to announce 106 projects with $180 million of Commonwealth funding. But it’s not the dollars that should be counted, it’s the lives we save in the future.
As part of that, of course, every day we look at COVID around the world, and in Australia. Around the world, we know that there have been 369,000 cases and over 8,000 lives lost in just one day, an agonising figure.
In Australia, we have had 31 community cases across the country, and these are providing challenges. But all of the states and territories are responding, and I want to thank and respect them to that.
There is one case in ICU, I’m advised, and no cases on ventilation in Australia. I had it drawn to my attention last night that in the UK, they have over 290 cases on ventilation at this point in time. So whatever our challenges may be, we’re in a very fortunate position by comparison with the world, and even by comparison with what Melbourne faced almost a year ago, with over 700 cases in one day.
So against that background, what we’ve seen is a record number of tests, 150,000 tests in the last 24 hours. We’ve also seen our third highest day, I’m advised by Commodore Young, of vaccinations. We have had 144,885 vaccinations in the last 24 hours. That takes it to 7,645,000 vaccinations.
And very significantly, we now have over six million Australians who have had first doses, or 29.3 per cent of the population. And a significant increase to 1.55 million Australians who have been fully vaccinated, or 7.5 per cent of the eligible population of 16 years and above.
Importantly, we have seen continued increase in the vaccinations for the over 50s, 60s, and 70s. Now we have 51.8 per cent of over 50s, 60.6 per cent of over 60s, and 69 per cent of over 70. So we want to continue to encourage everybody to step forward, to be vaccinated when you’re eligible, and to come back to that second dose. Both parts are critical.
And I want to thank and honour the work of Australians in helping to protect other Australians to invite Professor Melissa Little, who is the co-chair of the STEM Cells Mission, under which there are 17 grants, Australia-wide
PROFESSOR MELISSA LITTLE:
Thank you, Minister Hunt. I would point out that I’ve been vaccinated, as has Professor North and Professor Sinclair. And it’s fantastic that these types of vaccinations are available.
And I’d like to just again echo Kathryn’s comments about how exciting it is to have this fantastic funding roll out. (INAUDIBLE) I am the Co-chair of the Stem Cell Mission. I’m a stem cell researcher and my particular research is actually trying to recreate the human (INADUBLE) and (INAUDIBLE), we link our genomics research where we can identify mutations that cause disease.
We can then actually model those diseases using stem cells, and we can use those human models of disease to start to develop drugs.
And we are very fortunate, the 17 projects that are being funded nationally, that we have projects here around developing treatments for congenital lymphatic syndrome, which is a very rare and deadly kidney disease in children, but also around a very severe form of epilepsy.
And also actually using models of the human heart, built from their own stem cells, to try and find a way of preventing the heart damage that occurs in kids that are treated with chemotherapeutic agents and leukaemia.
As you’ve also heard, we are building stem cell derived tissues that we hope will actually be able to be used in (INUADIBLE) therapies, and the heart Band-Aid or the heart patch as a project that we’re working on here.
As a stem cell researcher that’s been very well linked in the stem cell network Australia-wide, this has been such an amazing catalyst to take the research that we do in stem cells and really pivot it towards human and heart health outcomes. And the next generation of drugs really will be facilitated by using stem cell models of human diseases where we can genuinely (INAUDIBLE) the patients’ own disease.
And so we move through the pathway from better diagnosis, understanding disease, modelling disease to develop drugs, to develop (INADUBLE) therapies. And so it’s a fantastic opportunity. And again, I thank Minister Hunt for the vision that he’s shown in terms of driving the Medical Research Future Fund in this way.
I’m happy to take any questions. And if there are any questions on either stem cells or genomic research, to hand over to Melissa or to Kathryn.
Minister, what’s your response to the very strong opponents today from the Chief Health Officers in Queensland and New South Wales in terms of making AstraZeneca available to the under 40s?
Look, I respect all of the different views around the country. Critically, what we’ve done is continue to follow the medical advice. And the medical advice from ATAGI, which is the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, is that AstraZeneca is preferred for over 60s, that Pfizer is preferred for under 60s.
But I think it is important to actually quote ATAGI and just to provide the context. ATAGI’s advice is: COVID-19 vaccine, AstraZeneca, can be used in adults aged under 60 years of age for whom Pfizer is not available. The benefits are likely to outweigh the risks for that individual, and the person has made an informed decision based on an understanding of the risks and benefits.
So there’s no change in the medical advice, that continues to be our guide. What has changed is to make sure that we have medical indemnity available for the doctors, and the program availability where individuals seek, under those conditions.
But our approach has always been to follow the medical advice and that ATAGI medical advice is clear, it’s set out and as you know we have made some difficult decisions to ensure that that medical advice has been followed.
And I note that Queensland and I thank them for this, is continuing to administer through the Queensland Health program, AstraZeneca. I believe it’s 89,000 doses of AstraZeneca, I’m advised by the vaccine rollout program, have been administered by Queensland Health and they continue to do that.
So, they’re now actively discouraging AstraZeneca for that cohort. How does that affect public confidence in the vaccination program?
Well, I think the medical advice and I have complete respect for all involved here, the medical advice has been clear and I have stood twice in the Parliament House briefing room, alongside the Chief Medical Officer and Professor Brendan Murphy and either the Prime Minister in one case or Lieutenant General Frewen in another and outlined that the ATAGI medical advice is, first for over 50s and then for over 60, that AstraZeneca is preferred for over 60s and Pfizer is preferred for over 50s.
So no change in that medical advice. That has been and continues to be the case. It continues to be the guiding light. But what we have done is recognise that the doctors themselves have been seeking indemnity and that’s been confirmed again today by the Expenditure Review Committee.
The Prime Minister has asked me to confirm that that is proceeding. That’s in place. That’s been endorsed. And so I think that’s important that what has been the ATAGI advice, continues to be the ATAGI advice, and ATAGI advice has always contemplated that where an individual had informed consent, they may elect to do so.
But our statement on preferred is unchanged and that remains exactly as ATAGI set out.
If a person is perfectly healthy and under 40, and they want to get the AstraZeneca vaccine, when they go and make a booking at a doctor, should they expect to receive the vaccine?
Well, I certainly would never step between a patient and a doctor. That has always been, always been my principle throughout my time in this role. The medical advice, which has been accepted and implemented by the Government is that ATAGI says that AstraZeneca is preferred for over 60s,
Pfizer is preferred for under 60s and I’ve just read out ATAGI’s actual advice about informed consent.
So if Pfizer is the preferred vaccine for under 40s, why would the Prime Minister then make announcements encouraging people to talk to their doctors about AstraZeneca? It just seems to be a bit contradictory, right?
Well, I would note that Queensland Health is continuing to administer, I think 89,000 doses and that they have administered around Australia, 4.7 million doses. Around the world, over 500 million doses. It’s been the backbone of the UK program.
And we were just discussing before that in fact all of us, the four of us have all received the AstraZeneca vaccine. And so it’s an important part of our national armoury and the advice remains very clear that AstraZeneca is preferred for the over 60, Pfizer is preferred for the under 60s and the ATAGI advice, as I’ve set out, about informed consent is exactly what has been re-affirmed, but that actually has been their advice throughout and that remains unchanged.
How is it possible for the Commonwealth and states to be so opposed on that situation?
Well, I think there are two different things here. There’s no disagreement on the medical advice.
But they’re actively discouraging it. They’re saying don’t, because it will cost lives. The Chief Health Officer in Queensland has gone that far. How can that happen?
Well, I think what we have is very clear ATAGI advice, that remains the national advice.
But how can you be so (INAUDIBLE)?
I can’t speak for other individuals.
Right. But you’re our Health Minister. You’re our Commonwealth Health Minister. How can you find yourself and us in this position?
Well, we have set out and followed the ATAGI advice. Indeed, I’ve been part of the.
I’ve been part of the difficult decisions we’ve made to follow that ATAGI advice of making the presentations to the nation with regards to the over 50s and then the over 60s.
And that ATAGI advice includes the informed consent element, which I’ve set out. I’ll let others speak for themselves. And we deeply respect the fact that throughout the course of the pandemic, there have been a range of views put forward, but the critical elements are that we have a national vaccine program, which is based on the medical advice and continues to be based on that medical advice.
This decision to encourage under 40s to consult their doctors about AstraZeneca. Why there consultation with National Cabinet before the Prime Minister made an announcement like that?
Well the Prime Minister took the medical indemnity question to the National Cabinet and it was noted. It was actually expressly included in the National Cabinet announcements on the night.
But where the Chief Health Officers from various states consulted about the Prime Minister going out and encouraging under 40s to talk to their doctor?
Well I think the point here is always to make sure that people do have discussions with their doctors. And that’s an important part of why we have provided consultation items, firstly for the above 50s and then the consultation items as requested by the medical profession were provided and extended to all patients.
And again, that’s been re-affirmed and confirmed by the expenditure review of that review committee of Cabinet just today.
So they are the things. I think that the critical point here, what we’re seeing is a record number of tests a day. One of our highest days of vaccinations. We’ve seen over 50 per cent of 50s, over 60 per cent of 60s, and nearly 70 per cent of 70s who’ve been vaccinated.
If you are over 60, can I, again, re-affirm the national advice that you remain in a vulnerable group, that there is plentiful vaccine, we wish you to come forward, to follow that medical advice and to come forward if you have had a first dose for your second dose.
So just to put everything into context this week, no change in the medical advice, but the provision of consultation items and indemnity, both of which were sought by the medical community. And I think that’s the appropriate thing to do. And, again I’ve also set out the informed consent position which remains unchanged from ATAGI. And they have published that previously, and so what we’ve done is simply acknowledged that existing informed consent position.
Do you see any merit in the calls to reduce the number of international travellers at least in the short term?
Look, one of the things is, as we’ve seen in some of the newspapers, the reports of people coming home to see dying loved ones, people coming home for the most profound human reasons, or new medical researchers for places such as the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute to add to the capacity of Australia.
And so we are in a position that almost no other country is. No country is immune, but we are better protected than almost any other nation. We see that with the fact that we have now had over 2.1 million lives lost in the world. We have now had over 2.1 million lives lost globally to COVID this year alone. But no person has caught COVID in Australia and died.
Is that physical isolation then, what else is being done to try to counter it?
Well we have five rings to our containment: borders, testing, tracing, distancing, and vaccination. And it’s the combination of those which has allowed us to achieve outcomes that almost no other country has.
Again, I’ve heard the UK cited a couple of times. In the last two days, they have had over 20,000 cases each day. They have over 290 people on ventilation. We have no Australians on ventilation for COVID. So what we are doing, it’s difficult, it’s always challenging, no country is immune. We simply happen to be in a more fortunate position through the combination of measures than almost any other country.
I’ll take one more.
Did the Prime Minister misspeak at all on Monday night about the agreement of National Cabinet regarding AstraZeneca at all?
The Prime Minister was very clear, he set out that National Cabinet had noted the national security’s position and he said this both in his words and in writing, with regards to medical indemnity.
Should it be mandatory for people coming back to Australia to be vaccinated?
Look, that will be a matter for the AHPPC. And as ever, one of the critical things is to follow that medical advice.
How is it that we’ve protected ourselves? We’ve acted early, we’ve taken decisions. There’s always continuous improvement. This week, we’ve added continuous improvement to both the aged care system with the mandatory vaccination.
It did take some time to get that medical advice. We tried on a number of occasions, but ultimately it was provided, and I’m pleased and thankful for that. And we also took the decisions, obviously following one particular case, to ensure that all states and territories would mandate that everyone associated with the quarantine program would be vaccinated if they are to participate in it.
And the decision following the case in Queensland, which was certainly an outlier in terms of national practice, as far as I’m aware, for domestic patients who are being quarantined on interstate travel, not to be housed in the same facility as international. That was a particular practice in Queensland, and there was I believe unanimous support for making sure that that isn’t happening around the country.
So continuous improvement. Rapid decisions. These are the things that are helping to save lives and protect lives, and that’s why we are in a position that at this point in time, no Australian has caught COVID and passed from it in 2021.
Around the world over 2.1 million people have done that. Thank you. And take care. Please keep coming forward for your first dose, where you are eligible, and please keep coming back for your second dose as it comes due.
Thanks a lot.