The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care
24 January 2022
Topics: Novavax COVID vaccine; vaccination and booster updates; supply of RATs in Australia;
I’m pleased to be able to announce today that I’ve received advice from Professor Nigel Crawford, the Chair of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, or ATAGI, recommending that the Novavax vaccine, Nuvaxovid, be included in the COVID vaccination program for Australia.
This will be the fourth vaccination that will be available to Australians. It follows on from the advice of the TGA last week approving it for use in Australia, but it’s always been a double green light process, and we have received that second green light. And so, I think that’s very important news.
At the same time, we are seeing two critical developments. The first is a clear decrease in cases, hospitalisations, and that in turn will have an impact on ICU and ventilation numbers and lives saved. And secondly, a continued enormous uptake of the vaccination program with 48 million doses passed and almost two million doses in the last week.
The pensioner’s concessional scheme will also commence, the first phase today. This is supplementary to the health testing. The health testing through the clinics remains the principal avenue, but this is an additional avenue and has started with greater numbers earlier than we had anticipated, so I’m very pleased about that.
So to begin, in terms of ATAGI, we have received a second green light from ATAGI in relation to the Novavax vaccine. I’ve spoken with the company both last week and this morning amongst many conversations, and we will be able to commence that program in the week of 21 February.
What happens from here is, now that we’ve got the double green light in Australia, stocks will be released, provided to Australia. The TGA or Therapeutic Goods Administration will go through a detailed batch testing process, a detailed batch testing process, as this will be the first such shipment we have received.
And presuming that is deemed to be safe and in line with all of the data and science that we’ve received to date, then that fourth vaccine will be made available from week of 21 February.
The specific advice of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation is that it will be a 2-dose course, with a minimum of three weeks between the first and second doses.
It’s a protein based vaccine, and for some who may have had contrary indications or reactions with regards to other vaccines, this will provide an additional opportunity for them, as well as those who for whatever reason have not taken up the program so far.
But I do want to encourage everybody, unless there’s a contrary indication, please continue to come forward and take the existing vaccines – the Pfizer, the Moderna, the AstraZeneca, depending upon your circumstances.
But if you do have a contrary indication, and for those, for whatever reason have not felt comfortable joining the program so far, this is your opportunity.
It can be taken by those who have had COVID on the advice of ATAGI, and for the severely immunocompromised, as is the case with other vaccines, three doses are recommended.
The second thing that I want to mention is the concessional rapid antigen tests supplementary scheme, which supports the health testing program for pensioners, Commonwealth seniors, Department of Veteran gold, white, or orange card holders, and low income healthcare card holders commences this week. We’ve had very positive reports, both from the public and from the pharmacies, that that has already led to supply this morning.
This is a screening program, if you have symptoms, if you are a close contact, please continue to go through the principle health screening program, and health testing program, which has always been free and continues to be free, and has seen over 60 million tests delivered around Australia.
And we are expecting to see 800 growing to 1000 in the first phase, which is commencing today and tomorrow, in terms of the number of participating pharmacies. And that will grow.
I have spoken with the Pharmacy Guild who have been our partners. I’ve spoken with different pharmacy chains. And I also want to thank the states who are our partners – this was a National Cabinet decision, a 50/50 program in the same way the schools program is 50/50, this is a 50/50 program with the states, and so we thank them and support them. But also thank the Pharmacy Guild which has co-designed and been engaged in the program.
It is a staged program; it commences this week with more pharmacies participating as supply comes in. But that supply, I should note the advice we have is there are 16 million rapid antigen tests expected in the pharmacies over the remaining period between now and the end of July (sic. January) – that’s just from what are called the wholesalers.
In addition, some of the pharmacy chains will have direct engagement and purchasing, and then there’s supermarkets suppliers which will also be in addition to that. That then grows with another 33 million over the course of February, and we are seeing those numbers increase. A global challenge, an Australian response, and I want to thank everybody for being involved in that.
The next thing is in terms of both cases and vaccinations. We’ve seen a decrease in case numbers. Significantly, we’ve seen a decrease in hospitalisation numbers of over 100 in each of Victoria and New South Wales, and that will flow through to ICU numbers and ventilation.
So, it’s an important moment where we are seeing, now, clear signs that this Omicron wave, at least in New South Wales, Victoria, and the ACT, has peaked. South Australia has also had some very promising signs as the Premier and the chief health officer have indicated, along with the health minister there.
With regards to vaccinations, one thing is we’ve now had a second full week in a row of almost 2 million doses. We are operating at the absolute peak levels throughout the course of the pandemic and the rollout.
And indeed last week we saw the highest vaccination day of 353,000 during the course of, not just the rollout, but within Australian history with regards to vaccinations in a single day.
Over the weekend, over 313,000 vaccinations; 1.985 million, almost 2 million, vaccinations in the last week; and we’ve now passed 48 million vaccinations with 48,000,050,000 vaccinations. And importantly, 95.4 per cent first doses and 93 per cent second doses.
The boosters have now passed six and a half million, 6.54 million boosters, and the percentage of eligible who had their boosters is 62.2 per cent – so, over 62 per cent of people who are eligible have had their boosters.
Finally, with regards to children, I’m really pleased this program is well ahead of schedule and what was anticipated. We’ve now had 662,297 children vaccinated in the first two weeks. That’s 29.1 per cent – ahead of Israel, Germany, the United States, in terms of the number of children that they’ve vaccinated.
And this week, over the course of this week, it will rise from 1.8 million vaccinations to 2.4 million vaccines that are available in the field. And so what that shows is that there’s a very large number of vaccines available for our children.
Significantly, if your GP happens to have all of their places filled, please look around, health.gov.au or any of the state websites. We know that the states in particular are reporting that they have significant additional capacity both for children and, importantly, for boosters as well.
So, real signs of hope. A new vaccine; the commencement of additional arrangements to support pensioners, the first phase of what will expand out over the coming weeks; and, clear signs of the virus having reached peak in at least four jurisdictions; and, a vaccine program which is operating at record levels.
I’m happy to take questions. I think I will start with Jade if that’s alright, please.
Thanks Minister. Given concerns about price gouging of rapid antigen tests, are there any rules in place to stop retailers from prioritising for example, people paying full price, rather than setting them aside for concession holders to get them for free?
Yes. So, we’ve worked with the Pharmacy Guild and what we’re seeing is that all the participating pharmacists are putting aside tests. I think that that’s really important.
I spoke with one pharmacy chain CEO yesterday. They were prioritising for early on this week, where they were expecting to have 500 packs of five tests available in the vast majority of their pharmacies which had been put aside specifically for pensioners, concession card holders, low income healthcare card holders and our veterans.
And we’re seeing that across the system. And so, they’re actually reserving spaces.
Now, that’s not to say that every pharmacy on day one is participating. It’s a phased program. And importantly, it’s a supplementary program. Your principle health testing remains what has been the free health testing system through the PCR and increasingly rapid antigen testing, state and Commonwealth clinics.
That I think is very important to note. If you have symptoms, do not go to your pharmacy. If you have symptoms, please go to the state testing clinics which have in place the safety protocols for people who are potentially infectious.
But the pharmacies have been a great partner. The Pharmacy Guild has co-designed, and indeed we were able to use their existing software to make sure that there were safeguards in place across the system.
And what is really heartening is more pharmacies, earlier, with greater numbers than we had anticipated for today. So I think that is very positive.
Thanks Minister. Barnaby Joyce has partially blamed individuals for the RAT shortage, saying that people have been hoarding them. Do you agree that hoarding has contributed to the shortage of RATs, or does the government take responsibility for it?
And also, can I just check on the did you say 16 million, one-six million RATs expected in pharmacies between now and the end of July? So if we’ve got 6 million people now eligible to get ten free tests over the course of three months, and then of course on top of that you’ve got everyday Australians wanting to buy them from pharmacies, will there be enough to go around in pharmacies through this free program, and if not, will the government share some of its supply was pharmacies?
Sure. So, the advice from the pharmacies is that there will be adequate supply going forwards, and it’s been a global challenge, and I think I want to put this in context for a minute. I will come back to the hoarding question in a second.
But what we’re seeing is this program will see very significant supplies coming in, and the industry has said to me, the pharmacy sector, both at the guild level and at the chain leader level, or pharmacies such as Chemist Warehouse with whom I was speaking yesterday, that they are expecting very significant supplies, so that is the first thing.
The second thing is that is just through what are called the wholesalers. There are also direct purchases, and there are purchases by supermarkets.
One of the things which has sometimes been lost here is that this has been a global challenge. And if I just look at some of the headings from around the world – the LA Times on 8 January: Why are rapid tests for COVID-19 in such short supply? This is in the United States. Rapid COVID tests are hard to find – The Washington Post, 13 January. The Biden Administration is dogged by testing shortage – CNN, 28 December.
If you look in the United Kingdom: Why are there COVID test shortages in the UK? The Financial Times on the 31 December 2021. The others that you see, such as COVID test shortages threaten New Year’s celebrations in England – the Guardian on the 29 December 2021. Lateral flow tests – which is what they call the rapid antigen tests in the UK – government ignored pharmacy industry warning of COVID test shortages last month – iNews in the UK, 3 January.
Look, those are just some of the examples that this is a global challenge, and what we have done in Australia is have one of the most accurate testing regimes in the world. Over 60 million tests. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has indicated that that program, which has now had over 60 million tests which have actually been carried out, has helped keep Australia safe.
The next thing going forwards is significant supplies of Commonwealth, state, and in particular Commonwealth, state and community through the pharmacies and supermarkets all coming in.
Our program is primarily targeted at aged care. Over 6.6 million tests have been supplied in aged care. The states are supplying through the testing. We meet half the cost of that. And then the pharmacies are procuring for this program, and we meet half the costs and the states meet half the costs as a national cabinet designed and implemented scheme.
Then in relation to hoarding, one of the reasons that we put in place the pack limitations with the pharmacists and the supermarkets was there were clear cases where there had been some hoarding. Unfortunate, and it does include people that were scooping up to resell at inflated prices and that’s why the anti-hoarding measures are in tandem with the price gouging measures which the ACCC has been pursuing.
And what we’re seeing is that price gouging is, there is increasing evidence that those who sought to do that are very quickly realising that they will face the wrath of the ACCC.
Hi. I would like to ask about hoarding as well. Is there more that the Commonwealth could have done, particularly in terms of limiting the types of businesses that are able to sell rapid antigen tests?
Why are we in the situation at all where retail stores rather than pharmacies are able to sell the tests, if there is this phenomenon of them stocking up to profiteer? And should the Commonwealth have done more to redirect orders to those businesses, towards priority groups instead?
We have been in the market and supplying since August, and we have been able to provide continuous supply of over 6.6 million rapid antigen tests to aged care.
And so, in relation to priority populations, that is one of the things that we have been able to do, is to foresee, to acquire and to supply throughout the course of not just Omicron, but before Omicron ever existed.
And so, we have been doing this since August and it has been a continuous Commonwealth process. The health testing has also continued through that time. And that’s available to everybody free.
And I think this is the really important point. Over 60 million tests delivered through the national testing program. State clinics, Commonwealth clinics, the Commonwealth respiratory clinics, all of these have come together to provide that.
And then in relation to private supply, what we have put in place with the supermarkets and the pharmacies was that anti-hoarding program in conjunction with price gouging, so that meant anybody who was reselling was clearly on notice that the ACCC would come down on them like a ton of bricks.
As to whether somebody purchases from a pharmacy or a supermarket, if there are more outlets procuring TGA approved tests and bringing them in using additional supply lines, that simply means more tests for more Australians.
Thanks Minister. I just wanted to clarify what you said earlier in terms of if you have symptoms or if you’re a close contact, to continue with the principle health screening program. Isn’t that contrary to National Cabinet advice which effectively called for people to use rapid antigen tests to alleviate pressure on that principle health screening program?
No. Look, with respect, what we don’t want is people that are symptomatic going into pharmacies, and that is the very, very clear health advice to National Cabinet, from the chief health officers, of the Chief Medical Officer of Australia.
So, symptomatic people are not encouraged to be visiting shops, to be visiting any environment where they could risk spreading it.
But it is important that they are tested and there is a free national testing system which is designed to deal with people who are symptomatic, with some of the finest pathologists and pathology specimen collectors in the world. And that’s exactly the health advice we have received.
And in fact, what I was asked to make clear today is that if you are symptomatic, please don’t go to a pharmacy, because you could therefore risk other people who might be in that situation, whereas if you are at a testing clinic, which is established and set up with all the protocols, then that is about keeping yourself safe, and keeping others safe.
So this is an additional screening program, it supports but doesn’t replace the national testing program.
And above all else, I just want to finish with this, again, thank you to everybody. 48 million vaccinations, 6.5 million boosters. Over- at this point in time, over 662,000 children at a rate faster than Israel, Germany, the United States. And our parents and our kids are doing our fantastic job, but if you haven’t had your vaccination, this week, please come forward.
And if your GP is booked up, please make sure you check the state websites because there are significant volumes of spaces available for boosting and for children within those clinics.
I want to thank everybody and continue to be optimistic that we do appear to have passed the peak in the cases, at least within Victoria, New South Wales, the ACT and potentially South Australia.
Thank you everybody.