Topics: Vaccine and treatment; Hydroxychloroquine; Potential outbreaks; Easing of restrictions; Queensland Health, World Health Organisation.
Health Minister Greg Hunt, thanks so much for your time. Can we start by getting you to explain to our viewers this latest instalment in terms of government support for, not just the vaccine, but the treatment of COVID-19?
Yes. So there are four things that we’re doing which is all part, Kieran, of this immensely important role of Australian researchers.
Firstly, vaccines. So we’re providing almost $19 million for vaccines, with the first $5 million of that going specifically to the University of Queensland for their molecular clamp project.
It’s been identified by CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness, as one of the world’s leading vaccine candidates, and to have that in Australia is immensely promising.
It’s promising for the health of Australians. It’s also promising for jobs and for investment in Australia.
Secondly, there’s funding for nine projects for antivirals, treatments that can minimise the impact of COVID-19 or in some cases reduce the likelihood of people contracting it.
That includes where I am today, at the University of Melbourne at Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, where they’ve received funding for two projects: one on the immune system; one looking at antibodies as being able to help provide extra defences.
And then, we have respiratory medicine. Incredibly important for treating patients who are in the advanced stages of the disease – those that are critical.
And there are seven projects on that front and one example is the $1.5 million for the University of New South Wales for their work in repurposing drugs and then $14.5 million dollars for health system preparedness and response.
Now, with the vaccines, as you say, one of the best hopes is a locally researched vaccine. How optimistic should we be that there can be a breakthrough in the foreseeable future?
Look, we are cautiously hopeful.
There are no guarantees but we are cautiously hopeful. And there are over 100 vaccine candidates worldwide.
There are six primary candidates in Australia of which the University of Queensland has been identified by CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness, as being one of the world’s leading candidates.
And either way though, we’re going to fight to give Australians the best protection, whether it’s through a vaccine – and we can’t guarantee that that will emerge within Australia or elsewhere but we’re going to do everything we can to give ourselves the best shot – or through the treatments and the respiratory medicine where we are increasingly hopeful that there will be different treatments that may provide better prevention or better response.
I did notice that one of the projects being funded is the controversial- well it’s controversial because Donald Trump has espoused the benefits of it. But one of the experts that was with you today was saying that there is some worth in looking more closely at Hydroxychloroquine.
Can you give us a sense of your position on that particular drug?
Sure. Well, we follow the advice of the medical experts, the TGA or the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which has been very, very careful about making sure this is a prescription only medicine that has a prescription use.
Then other than that, clinical trial use under supervision.
And this clinical trial by the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute is for preventive treatment.
In other words, trying to minimise the risk amongst health professionals.
So it’s supervised through the highest quality oversight standards, we believe, in the world.
It’s done through one of the world’s outstanding research institutions and then it’s being done through the hospital programs, through the medical health workforce on a voluntary basis.
But again, we’ll continue to monitor.
But at the moment, that clinical trial has commenced and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, under the leadership of Professor Doug Hilton, couldn’t be a stronger or more studious overseer of health and safety standards.
Well there is no country we would rather be right now in the face of this pandemic. That’s for sure.
That’s absolutely right.
But give us your sense of where we’re at in terms of- because we still see these numbers popping up in Victoria.
We saw Cedar Meats. We’ve seen these outbreaks. And still double figures, day to day, in Victoria. Are you still comfortable that this is well and truly within our control?
Yes, I am confident that we have the systems in place to protect Australians.
But right from the outset, I’ve said, the Prime Minister said, Brendan Murphy has said, there will be spikes. There will be outbreaks. And we have to be prepared for that.
That’s why the testing regime, the breadth of testing, the accuracy of our testing, is so important.
The contact tracing is such a critical part of it, why downloading the app provides that extra important protection for Australians, now with over 6.175 million Australians having downloaded it.
And then beyond that, our rapid response, as we did in North West Tasmania.
Being able to ring fence an area, being able to provide that containment. They’re the things that mean that we can deal with outbreaks.
And so it’s very important to understand the disease is still present.
We have done incredibly well. Australians have been extraordinary. But keeping your physical distance continues to be a priority.
It’s what allows us to have the confidence to return, within the rules of each state and territory under the national guidelines, to our day to day lives. But to do so in a way which is COVID safe. And if we do that, then we can be safe.
If we do that knowing that we have the safeguards of the testing the tracing, and the rapid response, we can also be confident and have real hope that Australia can manage the circumstances.
And I’m sure as Health Minister you would have had a lot of this feedback from various Australians and we’ve certainly had that sort of input from our viewers at times through this crisis but they’re reticent about the easing of restrictions.
What’s your message to those Australians who are concerned about it?
Look, we have a variety of views from around the country.
Some who would rather restrictions to be eased more quickly, some who would rather time be taken.
The important thing is that Australians can rightfully be confident that of all the countries in the world, you would rather be, and I would rather be here than anywhere else.
We have collectively together flattened that curve.
Now we have the systems in place to protect us but each of us has our responsibility to help keep our distance, to wash our hands, to download the app if we haven’t yet. All of these things help keep us safe.
And so we’re in a strong position, we can maintain that position, I believe we will maintain that position.
But we need all Australians to play their part in maintaining that position.
A couple of quick ones before you go. Queensland Health had a misdiagnosis of the 30-year-old miner Nathan Turner who passed away. What’s your reaction to that?
Do you think that they’ve shown too much caution? Was it a mistake clinically? What happened?
No I’ve been very clear that it would be so easy for me to be critical of a state health system but I’m not.
I’m not because firstly it was a post-mortem diagnosis, a very difficult circumstance and a tragic case.
And we need to remember that this young man still lost his life and his family and his fiancé and his friends lost somebody that was dear to them no matter what the cause of that loss of life was.
And secondly, in taking a cautious response to the town in providing that testing they have done the only thing that I think could have happened in that situation.
Where there was a belief that the disease may have been present, that cautious approach is exactly the thing which will help keep Australians safe.
But I did say earlier even though it was a state jurisdiction, I have said that I’m sorry to the people of Blackwater that they’ve had to face the uncertainty and the challenges.
But I do think at the same time, the actions taken to protect the town under the known information that Queensland Health had at the time, was the right thing to do.
So it would be very easy for me to be critical.
What I do want to do is give the public confidence that we’re taking the cautious approach but also to maintain the confidence in all of the state and territory public health units which have done an incredible job.
Without their work we would not be where we are.
And finally Minister, do you still have confidence in the WHO and will Australia continue our funding, our support for that organisation in the wake of the President of the United States pulling out of the WHO?
The regional WHO has done a fantastic job in areas such as polio, measles, malaria treatment.
Dr Takeshi is a distinguished public health leader and he’s their regional leader.
We have our criticisms of what occurred in Geneva. I’ve made those public. I said those directly to the WHO in the presence of Dr Tedros.
I said them to the World Health Assembly on behalf of Australia, that we thought the WHO was too slow to respond in terms of international travel.
They were critical of Australia in parts out of Geneva for our China travel ban on 1 February, which remains perhaps our most important public health decision, along with the establishment of the National Cabinet which allowed for rapid national response at the state level.
And so we’ve been very upfront.
The WHO at a regional level plays an important part. We’re going to be staying within it.
Our criticisms have been open and honest, made directly through the two fora that we’ve had as well as on the ground in Geneva.
So we respect the views of others.
For us though, what we want now is the inquiry to proceed and we’re doing everything we can to ensure that there is an impartial, independent and comprehensive global evaluation.
Health Minister, Greg Hunt. As always we do appreciate your time. Thank you.
Thanks Kieran. Stay safe everyone.