The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
4 October 2021
Topics: vaccination rollout; COVID-19 treatment
Good afternoon. There are important reasons for hope coming out of developments over the weekend for Australians looking for a pathway home in terms of COVID.
Significantly, we’ve had a record two weeks with almost 4 million vaccinations in that period of time, and that’s providing hope and protection, not just for individual Australians, but for every Australian.
This week, we are expected to pass the 80 per cent first dose rate, which is a critical milestone.
Very importantly, we have had 15,000 doses, or treatments, of sotrovimab, the breakthrough new medicine arrived in Australia over the course of recent days. That will be available to patients who are at risk of their COVID becoming serious, and it is already saving lives and protecting lives.
And then I think for Australians who are looking to travel abroad, to visit loved ones, to reunite with friends or family, the news that, as of today, the UK will recognise Australia’s AstraZeneca vaccine, along with now the United States, and Canada, and Italy, and France, and Germany, and Singapore, and many other countries, I think, is great news for Australians and great news for Australia.
So in terms of the vaccine rollout, yesterday, there were 138,000 vaccines delivered around Australia; over the weekend, over 350,000 vaccines.
That now takes us to over 27.75 [sic: 28.75] million vaccinations across the country. For the last week, 1.96 million vaccinations, which means, over the last two weeks, 3.97 million vaccinations, or almost 4 million Australians who have stepped forward to be vaccinated for either their first or their second dose. Some critical milestones in that.
We’re now at 90 per cent first dose for our over-50s. We’re at over 95 per cent first dose for our over-70s. That’s an extraordinary national achievement: over 95 per cent of first doses for our over-70s. And we’re now at almost unimaginable 99.4 per cent amongst aged care workers.
All of these things are providing protection for those who are most vulnerable. This is a disease that is not limited by age, but it is more likely to have an impact the older someone is.
Our first dose rate is now 79.6 per cent, which is 16.4 million; it’s 56.9 per cent as a second dose; and there are less than 85,000 Australians who need to come forward to achieve the 80 per cent mark.
In terms of milestones, I’ve mentioned those, but another important one is that we have 500,000 young people aged 12 to 15 who have already stepped forward – to be precise, 528,000 12- to 15-year-old Australians, in three weeks, have had a first vaccination.
So, to all the young Australians who’ve stepped forward, including my young guy last week, thank you very much. I really appreciate what you’re doing.
The full 4 million doses from the UK have arrived with final distribution having been on the weekend. That’s an important step. It guarantees that security of supply. And as we heard from the Victorian Deputy Premier, there are numerous vaccination opportunities in Victoria right now, as one example in one state.
And then in terms of treatments, I mentioned sotrovimab briefly before. Australia has increased its order of sotrovimab from 7,700 to 31,000 doses, and we have already secured new supplies in country.
So we’ve now had 15,000 extra courses of sotrovimab, which is a monoclonal antibody. In other words, it helps activate the body and its immune system to fight against COVID. It doesn’t prevent it, but it reduces the impacts.
And it won’t do it in every case, but in many cases, it will mean the difference between hospitalisation or no hospitalisation, ICU or no ICU, and in some cases, it will prevent the loss of life. So it’s a critical breakthrough medicine.
So, all of those are reasons for real hope. It’s a challenging, ongoing task for Australians everywhere, but Australians are stepping up, and I want to thank them and honour them and, in particular, continue to urge people to come forward and record numbers to be vaccinated.
I’ll go to those on the phone and then in the room, if that’s okay.
Thanks for taking our questions, Minister. Last week, the Victorian Government mandated COVID vaccinations for about 1.2 million people. Does that approach have your support, given the Federal Government has always maintained that it wouldn’t make the jab compulsory?
And if not, how are you planning to sort of incentivise and convince the last 10 to 15 per cent of people who might still be hesitant or unwilling to be vaccinated?
Sure. Look, the first thing is it’s a matter for Victoria. As a Commonwealth government, we have maintained a position that our approach is of voluntary participation, but we have always said that it’s a matter for states and territories.
It is important that people have sufficient time and access to be able to make sure they’re vaccinated. So we want to make sure that there are no critical workforce shortages, wherever that’s done.
Our approach with aged care, for example, was we gave a long period for people to meet the mandate. We worked with the unions, we worked with the employers, we worked with the sector, and we’ve achieved a 99.4 per cent result. And that continues to increase.
Then more broadly, what we’re seeing is that in the ACT, already there are over 90 per cent. New South Wales is approaching 90 per cent. Victoria’s now well over 82 per cent. So the best reason to be vaccinated, it’s a pretty simple one: it can save your life.
And every Australian has to assume that at some point, they will be exposed to COVID. Every Australian has to assume that at some point, they’ll be exposed to COVID.
So, the best reason to be vaccinated is to save your life and then to protect your family and your friends and your community, and then, of course, to help get us back to our way of life.
So these are powerful reasons. Now, we’ll just keep going, which is what we’re doing.
Minister, you earlier today said that Australia was in advanced negotiations with the pharma company, Merck & Co., for its antiviral pill, but what does that actually mean in terms of timeline, given that it hasn’t been approved in the US?
And also, if I may tack on a second question to that, do you see in 2022 much more of a global focus shifting towards looking at COVID-19 treatments now new mRNA vaccines have been established?
So just two questions there.
Yeah, sure. So our health defences, of course, have been built on the four rings of containment: borders, testing, tracing, distancing. That’s what’s given us one of the three lowest rates for loss of life from COVID across the 38 OECD countries, both throughout the pandemic and in particular in 2021.
Now we’re adding vaccines and treatments. Vaccines and treatments work together. Vaccines can prevent you getting the disease or seriously reduce the risk or consequences of it; treatments don’t prevent you getting the disease, but they can seriously reduce the risk of COVID becoming a life-threatening or a disease which requires hospitalisation. So that’s the two different roles.
We have already acquired sotrovimab. We’re in advanced discussions with a variety of other makers for different medicines, most of which are what are called monoclonal antibodies. And we’ll have more announcements very shortly on those, more announcements very shortly on some of those.
And some of those will be hospital infusions. So sotrovimab is for an infusion in hospital, so it is a more complex situation. Others such as Molnupiravir are pills, which can be taken through a course of treatment. And so an oral pill is obviously a much easier means of helping people.
So we’re monitoring the clinical trials, exactly as you say, Georgie. And we’re in advanced discussions with a variety of different makers. And there’ll be more announcements very, very shortly.
Thanks, Minister. I just wanted to ask you about Taiwan. Do you support increased intelligence sharing and security co-operations with Taiwan? And how close are we to an all-out war with China?
Look, our policy and our hope and our belief is peace. Our policy is peace. And let us be absolutely clear on that.
I will respectfully never speculate on intelligence in any circumstance, let alone this one. But our policy is peace. Our hope is peace. Our belief is that this can be maintained. And as a nation, that’s what we have to strive for.
And we work very constructively with countries everywhere. Last Friday, for example, in terms of China, the TGA recommended that we recognise Sinovac as an appropriate treatment. We just made a decision following the medical advice. No politics, no other considerations. We simply follow the medical advice.
And so we try to work with every country as constructively as possible.
Thanks, Minister. There has been debate about whether hospital systems will be ready to deal with a surge in COVID-19 cases as the country opens up. Queensland authorities say the system can cope with unexpected demand, and in the same breath, say they need more modelling on what the impact will be on hospitals.
Are you of the understanding that hospital systems are prepared at a state and territory level? And what other information, if any, are authorities preparing, authorities like AHPPC or the authorities that you’re preparing for jurisdictions?
Sure. Look, Queensland themselves have said at the level of the Chief Health Officer that their hospital system is prepared.
We started 20 months ago, and every state and territory has given undertakings and guarantees that they have done that preparation.
Whether it’s been scaling up ICUs, whether it’s been the new ventilator capacity, the Commonwealth having increased ventilator capacity from 2000 to 7500 across the country, training of staff, strengthening their capacity to work in ICU and bringing back more staff; 20,000 staff have been upskilled in terms of their ICU capacity. Over 3000 staff have been brought back with refresher courses around the country in terms of nursing.
So all of these things have been put in place. And you’re right, there are some outside of the health system, but elsewhere that have raised issues in terms of funding, whilst on the one hand saying that they are well prepared, which we think they are.
We think Queensland hospitals are well prepared based on the undertaking, the advice, and the information they have given.
There’s constant review, though. That’s exactly what we do with every element of COVID. Constant review to make sure that anything that’s new, anything that can be learnt, anything that can be improved is done that.
In terms of Queensland, we’ve provided a 99 per cent increase in hospital funding over our time in government to Queensland hospitals. They’ve provided a 55 per cent increase to their own hospitals.
So if they were to match our increase, I think that that would be welcomed by everybody.
Thanks very much. Could I please get your response to states and territories calling for 50-50 sharing of health-related COVID costs? Are you suggesting the Commonwealth won’t do that unless they match increases that have already been made since the Coalition came to government?
And isn’t it fair enough that, you know, the pandemic isn’t over and they’re experiencing problems like bed blocking, so they need more funding?
So two different things here. In terms of COVID, we already provide 50-50 funding for additional COVID expenditure in hospitals. We’ve provided $6.3 billion as part of that COVID hospital funding split. So that is 50-50. That continues to be the case, and it is ongoing.
The second thing is in terms of the general hospitals agreement, we’ve increased five-year funding from $75 billion to $100 billion to over the new hospitals agreement, which was signed just over 12 months ago by every state and territory health minister.
That new hospitals agreement takes it to $135 billion, or it’s a $35 billion increase. And as part of that underlying hospital funding, what we’ve seen is a Commonwealth increase of 99 per cent for Queensland and 55 per cent by the Queensland Government for Queensland hospitals across Australia.
Our funding over those three agreements is increased by 71 per cent, and state and territory funding for their own hospitals has increased by 44 per cent.
But for COVID, we actually have a 50-50 national partnership for COVID hospital expenditure that exists, that’s ongoing, and it’s delivered $6.3 billion in Commonwealth funding.
Thanks, Minister. In New South Wales in the last couple of days, the story of the people who have passed away with COVID who had the double dose of vaccine were all elderly and living in aged care, whereas the other deaths have either had no vaccination or only one dose.
The continued deaths of these very elderly people who are in aged care settings, even though they’re fully vaccinated, does that mean that even in the future, in a year, possibly beyond that time, we will continue to have to have very strict controls around aged care? Are you concerned about the ongoing isolation of our elderly if they appear to still be at risk of dying when fully vaccinated?
Sure. Look, I think one of the things here is that having looked at this very closely, there are a very high number of people who are already in palliative care who form that percentage of those that are double vaccinated.
And then there are those who may not be formally in palliative care but have serious underlying medical conditions. And so that is something that we’re very aware of. And so where there are individuals in palliative care, anything can be that last sad cause or trigger.
And it may not even be defined as the cause, but it may be the case of somebody passing with COVID, and certainly, if they’re in palliative care, there’s a very real possibility of that.
So there are two things here. One is to maintain that protection, and with 99.4 per cent residential aged care workers and 90.2 per cent of residents, and that is very much an individual family choice in that situation, then we have one of the highest rates of protection anywhere in the world, anywhere in the world.
Having said that, we are now working towards making sure that there is greater visitation. In a highly vaccinated society, in a highly vaccinated facility, then we have to be able to give older Australians who are in palliative care, are in the last weeks and sometimes months of their lives, and those who are just happily living with a long future ahead of them but in the care of others, we have to give them access to friends and family.
The emotional support, the mental health support, the human support, so that pathway back to opening up our aged care homes safely now that they have 99 per cent staff coverage, I think is something to which we are committed and on which the medical expert panel and the National Cabinet are united.
Thank you, Minister. Just on sotrovimab, can you tell me how many hospitals in Australia are actually already using it and what states they’re in? Is it all states using it or just the ones that have outbreaks at the moment? And are you aware of that being used in any regional hospitals yet?
So in terms of particular hospitals, that will be a matter for the states and territories to indicate. So we make it available to all states and territories. So it’s available on a demand basis.
As an example, I spoke with the immediate past deputy chief medical officer Professor Nick Coatsworth on the weekend about the use of sotrovimab, and his message was its saving lives already. It’s making a difference to the health of patients, that they are using it in the ACT.
And obviously it follows the cases by definition. And so it’s used where there are cases of people who are at risk. So for individual states and territories, we provide the medicine to them and they make sure that it’s available where it’s needed within their jurisdictions.
Are you aware, I’m sorry, going back to the actual question. Are you aware of which states are already using it and if any of the regional hospitals are yet to use it?
So look, it’s a matter for them to set out which hospitals they’re using it in. And I’m not sure whether or not they’re disclosing that, just for reasons of patient confidentiality and privacy. So it’s being- it’s been made available to all states and territories. And I’ll ask the department to provide you with the details of the case.
Which you can’t tell me, you can’t tell me which states are using it yet?
Well, it’s certainly being used across New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT, where of course, the cases are.
Thanks, Minister. When do you expect this new antiviral pill will be available in Australia? Is that likely to be by the end of the year or is that due to next year? And how would it be distributed?
Would it be on a per capita basis? Would it be on request or would it be deployed to where the greatest need is, given that it’s used to treat the virus rather than prevent it?
Sure. So the two questions there, firstly, in terms of availability, it would have to be registered. Firstly, I know that they will be seeking approval in the US through the FDA, but I have spoken with the CEO in Australia and encouraged Merck to apply for Molnupiravir to have registration here, that would be in the hands of the TGA.
So we’ve encouraged them to do this at the earliest possible time. Our expectation would be available if it gets through all of their clinical trials, all of their registration processes and then their supply in the first half of next year. And I would hope we might even be able to ensure that that’s available in the first quarter of next year.
We are working, as I say, across a number of different treatments. This one, Molnupiravir, is also what’s called a monoclonal antibody, in other words, it activates the body’s immune system. It comes, as you say, in an oral tablet, and these would be made available on the basis of need right across the country.
And then I’ll come to Georgia.
Recent studies that the WHO itself has quoted show the Sinovac vaccine is only 50 per cent effective against COVID.
Can you explained why the government has decided that international arrivals with this vaccine need only quarantine at home for seven days rather than the full 14-day period?
Sure. So we follow the medical advice. This was without fear or favour assessment by the TGA.
You’ll know that they have approved some international vaccines and haven’t approved others at this stage, so they have the freedom to assess. Their job is to do that.
They do that independently, and their medical advice was clear and unequivocal that they believe that for Australia’s purposes, this was safe and effective.
Alright. Look, I’ll just finish by returning to where I started, and there are important reasons for hope. As we’ve seen in New South Wales, case numbers coming down significantly. More to go. More to go. But they are coming down significantly.
In Victoria, yes, it is a big challenge. I know this is my home state, it’s where I live and I know the challenge, but we are beginning to see the flattening of the curve in Victoria. None of us can say that it has stopped its increase, but we are beginning to see some important signs, and those Victorian vaccination rates are going up.
The challenges that people face, I know, are real, but those signs of hope, the doses arriving from the UK, sotrovimab arriving, and almost four million vaccinations in the last two weeks. What that says is that in the moment of need, Australians are stepping up to support themselves, to support each other and to show us the best of the nation.
Thank you very much.