Topics: COVID-19 vaccine; COVID-19 in the aged care sector.
Some positive news, and Australia is on the cusp of signing a deal to manufacture a potential coronavirus vaccine on home soil.
Health Minister Greg Hunt says he is genuinely optimistic a COVID-19 vaccine will be internationally available by next year, declaring the nation is close to reaching a deal to produce it in Australia.
Minister for Health Greg Hunt joins me now from Canberra.
Thank you for your time, Minister. Let’s start with those increasingly positive reports we’re hearing around Australia and the world. I know you, you’re a cautious man Greg Hunt.
You’ll have read those expert reports. How confident are you that there will be a vaccine? And what’s the timeframe do you think?
So, until now I have been very, very cautious. I didn’t want to create a false expectation or a false hope.
But our medical advice, the international data, the clinical trial reports now indicates that it’s clearly more likely than not that there will be a vaccine.
There are over 160 different vaccines in clinical trials and more in pre-clinical trial stages.
What we’re seeing is some candidates in particular emerge.
The question will be I think not whether there is a vaccine, but whether it’s what’s called a full vaccine or a partial vaccine.
Measles or smallpox are full vaccines.
Partial, the flu is a good example where it doesn’t prevent completely people getting it, and what it does do is it reduces the likelihood and reduces the symptoms.
Now, that’s history to come. But I think it’s far more likely than not now that we will have some form of vaccine going forwards, and we’re very well-placed to participate for the whole of the Australian population.
We’ll talk to you about manufacturing. What ‘s being done to manufacture in Australia and how would that work?
There are four to our strategy.
The research and we are deeply engaged in that; the acquisition, whether it’s an Australian vaccine or an international one where we’re in advanced negotiations on a number of fronts and we have two non-disclosure agreements already completed.
There is the participation in the international facility, what’s known as the GAVI, the Global Alliance of Vaccines, which would allow many countries to have access to many different vaccines.
And then there’s Australian manufacturing. So, that’s- doesn’t matter where it’s developed, we’re able to under contract licence produce it in Australia through the CSL vaccine facility in Melbourne.
That’s a huge national resource, plan prepared for precisely this sort of global event over many years and in place.
And that’s one of our national assets and that’s what makes us very attractive to vaccine manufacturers from around the world.
We don’t have to widen in the queue. We can produce domestically through that facility.
Alright. Let’s say we got underway, we started manufacturing a vaccine.
Optimistically, let’s say in and around the start of next year. How quickly would that be out in the community beyond just the vulnerable people who would expect to get inoculated first?
And then what would that mean in terms of community and society getting back to normal?
Range estimate is about 12 months, middle of the year.
If the vaccine is ready earlier, we can scale up very quickly.
The advice from CSL, and I’ve spoken with both the CEO and the chair of CSL, and I (inaudible) that our team has been working with the chief scientist there and the vaccines team as well.
They can scale up within a matter of weeks.
It’s about being ready and having a vaccine that’s safe and effective. But we are well placed on that front.
What it means for Australia of course is a dramatic pathway towards a return to normal.
Now, depending on the quality of that vaccine, that will determine just how far we are able to go in returning to normal, and then of course with people coming in from the international scene, either they would have to have a vaccine or go through hotel quarantine.
So, those would be different elements as to the way we live.
But we’ve done this before with other global conditions and diseases.
Smallpox and others have been effectively eradicated and a vaccine is the only true path towards that global eradication, and the world will move on a scale never before seen in relation to any medicine I think.
I want to get into (inaudible) aged care, but just before we do that, before we move off of vaccines, Labor’s been fairly critical. They’re saying that you haven’t acted fast enough. They say 20 or so other countries have already lined up supplies.
What would you say to that?
Oh, look, the situation is we’re actually one of the best placed countries in the world because we have this comprehensive vaccine strategy, and we’re able to manufacture, and manufacture potentially not just for Australia but hopefully for New Zealand, the South Pacific, and to assist our region.
And because of that, we are able to very carefully assess the emerging science.
No firm is at production at this point around the world, but we’re ready to move very quickly.
And as I say, we’ve been in advanced negotiations, non-disclosure agreements already signed, participating in the international global facility through what’s known as GAVI, the Global Alliance.
And so we’re actually able to protect the whole of the population on a timeframe that would be right up there with the fastest in the world.
Yeah, I appreciate that clarification. I want to move now to aged care issues.
Claims made last week that there was no Commonwealth plan for aged care residents. Seems to be at odds with reports I read now (inaudible) carefully that say there’s been 50 or so specific precautions that your department has taken to get aged care homes prepared ahead of any spread of this virus into the community.
Who’s right here?
There’d probably be no area where we’ve prepared harder and more consistently since January than in aged care.
We have one of the lowest rates of loss of life in the world.
Any life lost is an agony and a tragedy.
But, for example, we’re just over 0.1 per cent of aged care residents that agonisingly lost their lives to COVID-19.
If you think of Austria, it’s three times that; Canada, 15; France and Spain 24, 25 times; Italy and Ireland 32 times; and the UK over 50 times that loss of life in Australia.
And there are two fundamental things. One is the containment right across the country, that community transmission is the thing which leads to the loss of life. As we’ve seen, seven out of eight states, magnificent.
Obviously, a terrible tragedy in Victoria where the community’s in lockdown, civil liberties have been taken away, people are having to wear masks. They’ve got only an hour of free time a day.
Unthinkable things, but because of the community transmission. But if we can control that, as we are progressively, then we protect all Victorians and all Australians, and we protect our elderly.
But in terms of aged care, we began the national aged care plan in January, and we’ve been through six stages, including $850 million of investment.
But most importantly, every facility we’ve planned.
Facilities called out very early on if we didn’t believe the plans were ready, and that has, with the generally low community transmission rate, protected us in seven out of eight states, and significantly lowered what would otherwise have been the case even in Melbourne and in Victoria.
Minister, let me just jump in there though. I mean, you’re making the point that once it’s out in the community, you can try to lessen the impact on aged care. But inevitably, you’ll have transmission.
If you’ve got transmission in the community, you’ll have it into aged care homes. So that’s one of the reasons why everyone was fighting so hard against community transmission, and not so the case obviously now in Victoria.
But going to the issue of hospital beds, isn’t it also true that delaying the movement of aged care patients to hospital, if they need a bed, if it’s part of their care plan that they’re happy to go to a hospital, isn’t that also part of the problem?
Are you confident today that anyone who needs a hospital bed in Victoria, whether they’re in an aged care facility or not, will get a bed?
Everyone who is in an aged care facility and has the need, must be given passage to a hospital in Victoria.
We have worked very hard to get that guarantee from the Victorian Government.
But I do know, because I’ve had cases drawn to my attention, that there’s been some resistance within the public health system at different times.
We are winning that battle, but I want to be clear and categorical that every patient with clinical need must be given a bed no matter what their age.
That is something which the Prime Minister and myself are completely uncompromising on.
That this is a fundamental Australian right with that public hospital system.
90 per cent of the patients I’m advised that have been transferred from the aged care system in Victoria to hospital, and there are well over 400 now, have gone to the private hospital system.
They’ve stepped up, they’re doing their job. And we want to make sure that every patient with any clinical need that’s relevant should be transferred, must be transferred.
And we will fight to make sure that that does happen.
Minister Greg Hunt, thank you for your time.