PRIME MINISTER: Good morning, everyone. I am joined today by Health Minister Greg Hunt and the ACT Australian of the Year, Secretary for Health, Brendon Murphy, Professor Brendan Murphy. We will be bringing you an update today on vaccines.
But before I do that, I have spoken to Premier Marshall this morning regarding the bushfire on the outskirts of Adelaide, adjacent to the Adelaide Hills, as those waking up in Adelaide this morning will be very aware of that. The smoke haze is very visible and very real. He indicates to me that they were able to move quickly last night but there is still work to be done to get this under control. We have offered Federal assistance. None is required at this stage and so we just look forward to a day in Adelaide where they are able to get on top of that and everybody can remain safe. But it was a very positive report from the Premier and we wish them all the best today and we thank all of those volunteer firefighters. It is quite difficult terrain where this fire is and so there has been difficulties accessing the area. But no doubt they will overcome, as they always do, and I thank them for their very selfless service today.
It is a year today since the first case of COVID-19 in Australia. What an extraordinary year it has been over these past 12 months. A year on from that fateful day Australia, we know, has done better and managed this together, working together better than almost any other country in the world today. As we look at the terrible situation being experienced in many parts of the world, some quite close to here actually, some further afield, our thoughts and support is with all the nations of the world, as we seek to get on top of what has been a calamitous event for the world over these last 12 months and indeed longer than that in some cases. So far, over the course of this summer, despite some very serious threats, working together we have so far been able to avoid and prevent a third wave of COVID-19 here in Australia. Now, we can take nothing for granted as I said after the National Cabinet meeting on Friday but that effort, whether it was in Brisbane with the strain, the new strain that had been able to get outside the quarantine facilities in Brisbane and being able to move quickly and having been in Brisbane late last week and there as the restrictions started to ease, or having returned to Sydney on the weekend for the first time in about six weeks and to see how people continue to manage with the easing restrictions there and how they have been able to get on top of the outbreak and, of course, the outbreak that also occurred in Victoria. Once again, systems tested, once again Australians tested, once again Australia and our systems have passed that test. So I have a simple message to Australia - thank you, thank you Australia. Thank you that you have put us in a situation that is the envy of most countries in the world today. We intend to keep it that way. We intend to remain vigilant. We intend to continue to set the pace and set the standards by which we can ensure that we keep Australians safe and we save lives and we save livelihoods which have always been our twin goals.
Now, a couple of weeks ago when I stood here with the Health Minister and the Secretary, we gave you an update on where the vaccines were at, at that stage and we undertook to keep people updated on that and it is important that we be as transparent as we possibly can. This is a global challenge like none we have seen in a very, very long time. There will be challenges along the way and we are addressing them. Just earlier today, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, Professor Skerritt, announced they had approved the Pfizer vaccine for people aged over 16 years here in Australia. I note this is not an emergency approval, as has been done in some other jurisdictions around the world. This is a formal approval under the ordinary processes of the TGA and we are one of the first countries in the handful of countries to have gone through that comprehensive and thorough process here in Australia to ensure the approval of that vaccine. Now, their work will continue as it has been in parallel regarding the AZ vaccine as well and we look forward to their thorough work but also their timely work as they have demonstrated in getting us to where we are today on Pfizer.
Now, we remain on track to have those vaccines in Australia and ready to go from very small beginnings, I should stress, very small beginnings, starting small. We scale up as we outlined in the plan that we advised to you some weeks ago. We are more looking at late February now than mid-February because of the challenges that we have seen in the production and delivery for both AZ and Pfizer around the world. You will be very aware of the situation and pressures that we are seeing globally. This day last week I was holding a further video conference meeting with quite a number of the national leaders throughout Europe and also in Israel and they are under considerable strain and stress there, in countries that are experiencing large numbers of fatalities every day and their vaccination programs under extreme stress. Australia has taken the time, we have been watching and learning from the experience overseas and so we remain within the guard rails of the timeframe that we set a few weeks ago but, obviously that is going to continue to come under challenge for events and circumstances that exist well beyond our shores.
It was for that reason around August of last year that we took the decision that we didn't want to be in a situation where we were completely reliant on the production of vaccines overseas. So we took the decision, we put the arrangements in place with CSL and AZ to ensure that we would be able to produce our own vaccine here in Australia and that is happening now. It is underway now. Yes, we paid a premium for it. Yes, we had to put the capability in place with CSL to achieve that and, yes, we're involved more broadly in the development of their production facilities in Melbourne. But that was the right decision for Australia because, as much as you can you want to be able to control as many things as you can in this country when dealing with COVID-19. That has been our form. That will continue to be our form and with that I will ask the Health Minister and the Secretary to give you some further detail.
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Thanks very much, Prime Minister and to Brendan. Today's another very important step forward in protecting Australians, in saving lives and protecting lives. As the Prime Minister said, it's a year to the day since the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in Australia and it is worth reflecting on that journey briefly. We know that the world is likely to reach 100 million formally diagnosed cases within the next 48 hours. We know that the world has already lost formally 2.1 million lives and no doubt the real figure will be higher because of undiagnosed or unrecognised cases. In Australia there have been seven consecutive days of zero cases of community transmission. Nine out of the last 10 days have had zero community transmission. There have been no lives lost in that time and we are back to zero Australians on ventilation and zero Australians in ICU because of COVID-19. At the same time in the last 24 hours for which there are full figures there were 570,000 cases globally and 14,000 lives lost and 6 million cases over that last 10 days and over 125,000 lives lost. That comparison is almost unbelievable, the difference between where we are in Australia and overseas. What it shows though, is that with those numbers with a pandemic raging across the world we have to be prepared for and we have to presume that there will be new outbreaks. We hope there won't be but we have seen South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland all face outbreaks in the last two months, all be tested and all pass that test. That's a testimony to the work of all Australians, all Governments and all health officials involved in all of the chains of the containment and capacity process that we set out in February. That structure remains the guiding light.
As part of that, one of the things which we saw yesterday was that our 5-year-old vaccination rate for the first time, past the 95 percent mark, 95.1 percent for the December quarter. So through the pandemic vaccination rates have actually gone up which if you had asked me at the outset I would have thought with all of the challenges would have been almost impossible and yet Australia remains a great vaccination nation. A critical part of our COVID-19 strategy is a focus on safety and the delivery of vaccines. That is why I am delighted and we're delighted that the TGA, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which I believe is arguably the best medical regulator in the world has approved the use of the Pfizer vaccine in Australia. It has approved it now for Australians 16 years of age and older. I think when last we spoke we were anticipating it might be 18 years and older. That is a broader range of population than anticipated. That changes our vaccination strategy, so as those 16 and above will now be included in phase 2b. So this is an example of the evolution of that strategy as the approvals and facts and science are developed.
We have on the advice of the committee led by Professor Brendon Murphy and ATAGI, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, which is led by Professor Allen Cheng and a very distinguished team secured 140 million vaccines one of the highest dosing rates per head of population in the world. The commencement remains on track for February, as the Prime Minister has said. The completion remains on track for October. This approval by the TGA is one of the earliest in the world for a full approval. We know that the European Medicines Agency and the Swiss have already made such an approval but Australia is amongst the earliest. I spoke last night with the regional and Australian heads of Pfizer and they indicated, as the Prime Minister has said, that we are likely to have on their shipping advice which they have now been able to confirm, first vaccines in Australia ready for distribution in late February. So within the guidance that we previously provided. That is likely to start with approximately 80,000 doses per week, if not more. But let's be more conservative on that. Further guidance for March and beyond will be provided across the globe by Pfizer in mid-February. So they are making global decisions on those allocations but continuous supply was their goal, objective and their anticipation and guidance as of last night.
With regards to AstraZeneca, the international AstraZeneca supplies in Australia are likely to commence slightly earlier than had previously been anticipated, early in March, and if there is more guidance on that we will obviously provide it. That is subject both to TGA approval and to shipping. I think that's important and the domestic AstraZeneca production via CSL is likely to see supplies of approximately one million doses per week commencing in late March. So that's an incredibly important part of it. Both companies have experienced global supply challenges but we are in a fortunate position as a country because of the decisions that have been taken and our ability to focus on safety. In particular if you asked me for the two most important decisions of the whole pandemic, one, the 1st of February last year, the advice that Professor Murphy gave to both the Prime Minister and myself and the National Security Committee that we should close the border with China. But secondly, the decision to pay a premium for an onshore, secure, sovereign vaccine manufacturing capacity via CSL. That puts Australia in a vastly more secure position than almost any other country in the world. I think that's probably, of all the decisions, the one which I reflect upon and that was a difficult, challenging decision at the time and we had to work very hard to have that onshore vaccine manufacturing capability. But CSL and AstraZeneca have stepped up.
Now we move to the next steps now and we continue this. I do want to thank the TGA, the Department of Health, the states and the territories, people who have worked right through Christmas, New Year, summer, right through weekends. In many cases right through, right through the night with documents being completed at 1.30am and forwarded. So we focus on the continuous assessment, the continuous procurement, the shipping, the distribution, working with the general practices, with the RACGP, the AMA, the states and territories on that rollout. But we’re in a very strong position. I want to thank as the Prime Minister did, all those Australians who have helped keep us safe and all our extraordinary researchers, medical professionals, contact tracers, pathologists that have prevented, so far a third wave. But precisely because of the global risk, that’s why we have to proceed with a safe, secure vaccine program but Australians can have confidence. If the best regulator in the world, it approves the vaccine, it is safe and effective.
PRIME MINISTER: Thank you Greg. Brendan?
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: Thanks, Prime Minister and Minister, I will be very brief. I think this is a very special day for Australia. We are in this wonderful position of still having no community transmission and yet we have approved, through our normal, proper processes the first vaccine. We can now get that vaccine shipped to Australia, do the batch testing and start our vaccination program, according to our schedule. As Minister Hunt and the PM have said we also have one of the few countries in the world that have this luxury of having onshore production. We know that the whole world will be competing and there will be supply chain difficulties for vaccines manufactured offshore for every country in the world. We are already seeing that around the world. So once we start to get our, once fully registered our AstraZeneca vaccine and as I have said many times, it is a very good vaccine. It is a very good vaccine to prevent, both the vaccines are excellent and both prevent COVID disease effectively and prevent severe disease. So once we get the local onshore production going, we will start to have a totally reliable supply chain. I should emphasise that the next few weeks, while we're waiting to get the final doses and get approval, is being spent 24-hours a day in preparation. The preparation that is going on for this vaccination journey is huge. We intend to get it right. We have got major logistics issues vaccinating 26 million people. We are working very closely with our partners in the states and territories, we are doing very careful planning about starting up those clinics, gentle clinics so that we can get going first with the border workers, the quarantine workers, the health care workers at risk of COVID and the elderly and disability people in care and their staff. We are ready to go. We are planning, very exciting and very exciting that we have not had to do this in an emergency way because we have a crisis to deal with. We can do this in our normal safe Australian way. Thank you.
JOURNALIST: PM on the timing, I was under the impression that mid-February might have been possible but we are talking late February. There have been issues in Europe with Pfizer. I had the impression we were getting the Pfizer vaccine out of the US manufacturing rather than European manufacturing. Have we been affected by any of the Pfizer manufacturing capacity issues or is the delay something else? And is there still a possibility that we could get more than 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine or is that not possible or not necessary?
PRIME MINISTER: I will let Greg cover that. First of all, I should say, no Australian vaccines i.e. vaccines destined for Australia, have been diverted anywhere else let me be clear about that. But there are challenges for all these big producers around the world for the reasons that I said before but I will let Greg take that.
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Sure. On timing, our guidance was always mid to late February and that would depend on the shipping dates. We had the shipping dates provided last night. I note that, I think it is actually valuable to bring everybody into the confidence of the discussions with Pfizer. They have had to pause some of their supply to major nations and that has had an impact on some of their programs. For us, we are commencing in exactly the window. Though we had not put a specific date I think on multiple occasions to questions to many of you here, we have indicated that the date that we would have would be dependent on approval and then on shipping times and those shipping times were provided last night, which means we are in a position to commence in late February and our guidance has always been for a window. I would say that has undoubtedly been influenced by Pfizer's global capacity and the fact that we are within our window is indicative of a very, very strong contract and a very, very strong position. So they reaffirmed to us that they are on track to complete all of their contractual contracts, time frames and obligations. Second thing is on the selection and purchase of vaccines, we are guided by the medical expert panel. This is one where you would absolutely want the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, led by Professor Cheng, and the Scientific and Industry Technical Advisory Group, led by Professor Murphy, to be the ones making the selection of vaccines. It is an entirely medical choice and we have followed their guidance and if they recommend more of any particular vaccine, then we will secure it and we are in a position to be able to do that.
JOURNALIST: Have we secured enough vaccines to vaccinate our population three times over, has the Government confirmed what percentage would potentially be going to our Pacific or Indonesian friends?
PRIME MINISTER: Yes, the Foreign Minister and the Minister for the Pacific and International Development have been, they have commenced the process of working with our Pacific Island neighbours and the first step of that is to prepare them to be able to administer the vaccine and so there is a fair bit of work going in aid support to ensure that they are in a capacity to actually deliver the vaccine. We are going through the rollout timetables and programs with them now. Obviously, they don't start the same time as we do here. But the first thing we need to do is ensure that they are equipped to be able to administer the vaccine across their population. That is the first step and I have had some fantastic messages back from our Pacific family leaders over the course of the last week. Those calls have been very well received. The Pacific leaders are appreciative of the proactive role that Australia has taken to ensure that they will be in a position to administer that vaccine.
JOURNALIST: Following what happened in Norway, will we be giving Pfizer to elderly Australians or terminally ill Australians?
PRIME MINISTER: I will let Brendan talk about that.
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: So the TGA advice, and we have obviously been concerned about this, for the very elderly and frail, that will need a very careful clinical decision. That is something that would need to be, where the risks versus the benefits of vaccination need to be carefully considered. So the vaccine is registered for all ages over 16 but there will be specific advice that ATAGI will be producing around particularly people who are very frail and close to end of life, which is that group that had the issues in Norway.
JOURNALIST: Minister Hunt, just on the distribution being ready by late February. Does that mean in terms of people getting the injection, that is likely to be early March? And just secondly, you said approximately 80,000 doses per week is the plan at the moment but let's be more conservative on that, so is the figure revised down?
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: No. Sorry, firstly we are expecting that, at this stage the first vaccinations will be delivered in February and the 80,000 is the conservative figure. It could actually be higher but we will presume 80,000 doses per week is the initial distribution and then as I have said, Pfizer is around the world and I think this is quite understandable, looking at all of their available production and then they will provide guidance in mid-February for March and beyond on a weekly basis.
JOURNALIST: So how many doses will be coming out in that first shipment, for example?
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: We are looking at 80,000 plus per week at the initial outset and that is why we are presuming 80,000 would be available. Then, as we have indicated, later on we will have AstraZeneca international from early March is the current guidance and then AstraZeneca domestic at the volume of approximately a million a week on the latest advice that we had over the weekend.
PRIME MINISTER: I want to stress though, what we are telling you here today is what we know today. This is a very challenging global situation and if there are any other things that occur between now and then, we will stand here and explain what is happening and I think that is the appropriate way to engage in this vaccination program. We are going to be very up-front with Australians about the vaccine, about its timing, about its rollout. We will be communicating very clearly about what the vaccine is and what families will want to know about the vaccine and to make their own choices in an informed way about that. It is a topic that we discussed somewhat last Friday at National Cabinet and we are all working together to ensure it can get out there on the ground. It is a very significant logistical challenge, one that is even more challenging in a country like Australia. In speaking to Prime Minister Netanyahu, they have also had some challenges there and they have been quite innovative in the way they have been dealing with its distribution. So we're learning from everybody and they are learning from us.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the Government's had a goal of four million doses by the end of March. Assuming that we get the late February start at 80,000 a week, you are going to have to very quickly increase that rate to get to four million by the end of March. Are you confident that that goal is still realistic and if we can we get some detail about what kinds of weekly figures you would be expecting by effectively the second or so week of March?
PRIME MINISTER: Yeah, look, I think it is difficult to predict these things and the events of recent weeks I think will mean that four million position will be something that is going to be achieved in early April as opposed to late March. That is the reality of dealing with international arrangements. These are things that are beyond our control with these initial shipments. So that is understandable and it is a combination of the issues of AZ and Pfizer. That is why we are updating you today. Greg, did you want to add anything to that?
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Sure. I think we are on track for the February commencement, the October completion, slightly earlier start for the AstraZeneca international than we would imagine, slightly earlier start for the CSL production domestically than we had imagined. The one variable here is AstraZeneca globally advised us yesterday that as we have seen, they have had a significant supply shock and so that means we won't have as much of that AstraZeneca international in March as they had previously promised, which is precisely why I maintain that the two most important decisions are the 1st of February, China decision and the AstraZeneca onshore. That means, as the Prime Minister said, that April will be the period where we complete the four million. But the start, the commencement, are all on track. Slightly earlier commencement for AstraZeneca international and slightly earlier commencement for AstraZeneca CSL domestic.
PRIME MINISTER: There will be swings and roundabouts on this process. You can expect that and what you can also expect for us to explain those as they occur.
JOURNALIST: Does that mean that the fact that it will be extended to people as young as 16 won't affect the delivery timetable at all?
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: No, that doesn't because those under 18 were included in the last of the five stages already but they will be able to come forward to the general population stage, which is stage 2(b).
JOURNALIST: Minister Hunt and Professor Murphy, where are negotiations up to on securing the Moderna vaccine and what have been the struggles that have made it currently not possible to secure that deal?
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: People have different views and I will turn on the science of it to Professor Murphy. But from a policy perspective, what we have done is taken the views of the medical expert panel. I understand there are many people with different views. I would have to say that our medical expert advice has arguably been the best in the world. I have got here the Australian Academy of Science release of last week, ‘The Academy supports the current Australian Government vaccination strategy, informed by the best available expertise in science.’ and it was headed Academy Statement on the pandemic Vaccines and Misinformation. It was concerned that there were many who were going or some who were going outside of the expert advice to give widely available, freely available opinions. The opinions that we listen to are those of the medical expert panels, ATAGI and SCITAG. One led by Professor Cheng and one led by Professor Murphy and if they recommend a different vaccine, if they recommend additional doses of the vaccine, then we will pursue their advice and we have followed their advice so far.
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: So the Scientific and Technical Advisory Group is meeting regularly and we are continuing to re-evaluate at every step a vaccine profile. Remember, we have got the Novavax vaccine, we’ve still got whole population coverage of Novavax. We haven't seen phase 3 trial date for Novavax yet. We don’t know that may well be as good as the other vaccines that we have got. We are also looking at our mix of the MRNA vaccines, the Moderna vaccine is very similar to the Pfizer vaccine. There is not much difference between the two. But we are looking at the MRNA vaccine profile, our protein vaccine profile, our adenovirus profile all the time and this panel, which is comprised people with deep expertise from the pharmaceutical industry and the medical and scientific industry, feels that our profile at the moment is the right one for us, but we will re-evaluate and make advice to Government and every piece of advice that that expert panel has given to Government has been accepted.
PRIME MINISTER: I’m giving everyone a go, I’m just going to keep moving across in the normal way.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, just in lieu of the other questions asked and the follow-up on Moderna, have you tried to sign a contract with Moderna and is the Government struggling? And once we ramp up production, will you be looking at or why aren't we looking at doing a 24-hour vaccination program like other countries if we have the surplus stock? Why don't we try and get through the vaccination program faster?
PRIME MINISTER: I’ll let Brendan and Greg,
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: We are not in a crisis mode where we have to. We will obviously be looking at vaccination clinics that may well function after hours but we are not in a situation of having to do 24-hour vaccinations. When you set up a scale like that, there are risks associated and we want to make sure this is very, very risk-free. We want to make sure our supply chain works. We want to make sure our cold chain works, we want to make sure we have the right numbers of appropriately qualified vaccination workforce. So we are standing up a rapidly expanding vaccination workforce. When it is up at full speed, matching the supply of the onshore production of vaccines, it will be vaccinating a lot of people.
JOURNALIST: On the Moderna contract, have we tried to sign one with them?
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: We are continuing to evaluate and in discussions with all of the major companies. Those discussions are commercial in confidence. We are continuing discussions with all major vaccine companies.
JOURNALIST: One of the groups that has expressed concern about the lack of data from trials for the Pfizer vaccine and a lot of vaccines is pregnant women. Are they approved for this vaccine?
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: So we will be getting specific advice from ATAGI on that. There is really no data on, theoretically, the risk of this vaccine, Pfizer or AstraZeneca on pregnancy is probably very low. I note that the US and UK have different recommendations about pregnancy. We will be getting advice from ATAGI and it is advice that is really just going to be based on the best guess of what the risks are at the moment and that is coming very shortly, before the vaccine is administered.
JOURNALIST: For the Health Minister and Professor Murphy, has Pfizer have advised they can ramp up beyond 80,000 doses to Australia? We have seen in the UK they are stretching out the period between those doses. Has Pfizer said they can move faster, can they ramp up over time?
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Yes, they have. They will provide the advice mid-February. It was a very valuable discussion. They operate on what they call pandemic supply the at moment. Normally they like to build inventory, make sure they have reserves, for example when we have the flu vaccine, the manufacturers ensure they have reserves, that we have reserves, we're able to roll it out continuously. Around the world they are producing and then distributing. I think the question before was our source, our source is Europe and they are producing, they are distributing, usually it is within 24-48 hours of manufacturing and so in mid-February, they will provide guidance on volumes for subsequent months but, as of last night, the discussion was about continuous supply and then progressively ramping up.
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: The advice from the regulator is 21 days, approximately, and Brendan can give you more advice on the windows on either side. But our regulators recommended 21 days and that is what we are planning to do in Australia.
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: Because we have got the luxury of doing this properly, we plan to make sure that we have enough vaccine to give everyone the second dose at the recommended time. We are not planning to manipulate the revaccination times. We are doing our planning on the basis that we can give people the recommended doses at the recommended intervals.
JOURNALIST: In relation to the AstraZeneca vaccine, they were originally looking about having 1.9 million doses in January and 1.9 in February. Is that being delayed? Is that part of the supply shock you refer to? And Prime Minister, just in relation to Anthony Albanese's proposal to get former Prime Ministers Rudd and Howard involved in resetting the China relationship, do you have any perspective on that?
PRIME MINISTER: I might come back to that. Let’s deal with the health questions first and I’m happy to come back to other questions.
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: On the international supply, that is the one variable that has changed because their entire global supply has changed. So at this stage, we are expecting about 1.2 million doses of AstraZeneca international. But knowing that, these figures can increase in any one day or decrease if there has been a supply change, so that was the advice as of yesterday. I spoke with the country head for Australia and they were apologetic about that but it is not anything to do with Australia, that is their global challenge which I think was widely reported on the weekend. So that is the variable in Australia. But at the same time, being able to deliver the international doses slightly earlier than anticipated and the domestic doses slightly earlier than anticipated and at major scale.
JOURNALIST: Can we talk about what the vaccine can do and can't do? Because for people watching today and will think I can stop wearing a mask, I can go to Bali, I don't have to quarantine and that space, can you just explain to people is this a sterilising vaccine that stops people from getting infected or is it a vaccine that stops people dying and getting sick and what are the implications of this? Can you transmit the COVID-19 virus even if you have been vaccinated and you are showing no signs of the illness?
PRIME MINISTER: They are very good questions and I will ask Professor Murphy to deal with them. Before he does that, I think the answer to these questions are important because it is important we understand the expectations of what the vaccine does. Let me be very clear, this year 2021, will require us to continue to be vigilant, it will continue to require us to be engaging with all sorts of COVID-19 arrangements that can further mitigate the risk of transmission and keeping Australians safe, keeping livelihoods, keeping Australia as open as possible. There are limitations to these vaccines. There is far more to learn about these vaccines. In many cases, as I have been advised, there are positions where there is not enough evidence to say it definitively does X but that doesn't mean it won't. It just means the evidence at this point is not in a position and that has been a discussion we have been having with international leaders now for some time. So it is important to understand that once the vaccines start, that doesn't mean you can jump on a plane to Bali the next day. It doesn't mean that the masks disappear if that is what the public health arrangements are in a particular state or territory or the quarantine arrangements for return into Australia will end or anything like this. This will build, it will start at small scale, it will build up and it will happen over a period of time as we have outlined over the course of this year. Of itself, it is not a silver bullet because there are still limitations to what these vaccines can do and the best person to explain what they are is Professor Murphy.
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: Thanks Prime Minister, these are really important questions and the population really want to know them. What we do know is that the two vaccines that we are rolling out now are both very good at preventing clinical COVID disease and particularly severe disease. That is great, that is going to stop people getting clinically sick and hopefully people getting sick and needing treatment and unfortunately dying. We don't yet know how effective they are at preventing the transmission of the virus. Those original studies that were published, the phase 3 trials, are based around prevention of clinical disease. We will be progressively getting data over the coming months about the impact on transmission of the virus. It stands to reason that these vaccines will also prevent, to some degree, transmission of the virus but we don't know how effective they are at doing that. Our strategy at the moment is to protect the population, to protect people from getting sick from COVID. Then we will re-evaluate what the impact is on transmission. See how widely vaccinated our population is at a particular time and look at that in terms of the vaccination in other countries. I have said to the Prime Minister, I think about a year ago, I wouldn't want to predict more than three months ahead with this pandemic and that still stands. I think at the moment, the strategy is that we are going to be pretty much in our current situation for the next three months, while we ramp up vaccination. We will progressively re-evaluate the situation at the time. So we think they will be effective. The other thing we don't know is how long the immunity of these vaccines will last. So it may be that people will need additional doses of vaccines, possibly even annually. These things are completely unknown at the moment.
JOURNALIST: [Inaudible] doesn't that mean hotel quarantine will have to stay in place for possibly at least another year or, I mean, essentially even if people are vaccinated and they come to Australia, they could still be carrying the virus, transmitting the virus?
PROFESSOR BRENDAN MURPHY, SECRETARY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH: We don't know that yet. That is the data we have to get from the experience of the world's vaccinations over the next what we call the phase 4 data, the real time experience and we will know that probably within three months, we will have pretty good data on how effective the vaccines are at preventing transmission and that will give us the potential to re-evaluate things like international travel and hotel quarantine. So it is a progressive, real time re-evaluation of the public health situation.
PRIME MINISTER: That is the approach we have taken the whole way through. We prepare for what we know and we deal with what is in front of us and we constantly re-evaluate, we talk to each other, we listen to the expert medical advice and then we take the actions that are necessary. So in terms of the question you ask, Sam, that may or may not be true. It is just not in a position to be able to say that. I don't think we should leap to any conclusion about what things look like six months from now, nine months from now, just like this time last year, people were making predictions this time last year and in the months that followed, well they proved to be horribly wrong.
JOURNALIST: Special arrangements were made last year for the Indigenous communities and they were very successful. I just wonder where are they being placed in the queue for the vaccine and are there going to be special programs rolled out to protect them as fast as possible?
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: The answer is, yes, they have been specifically contemplated. The Indigenous Australians over 55 years of age will be in Phase 1b, again on medical advice, and Indigenous Australians under 55 years of age but over 16 will be in what is known as Phase 2a. In addition to the general population distribution mechanisms, being the hospitals, the state vaccination clinics, the Commonwealth vaccination clinics, the role fundamentally with the AstraZeneca vaccine for general practices and we thank them from Phase 2 for the pharmacies. The Aboriginal community controlled health organisations or the Indigenous medical centres will be providing support to Indigenous communities around the country.
PRIME MINISTER: Nothing on health? Ok, we will go general on other topics.
JOURNALIST: On vaccines, a follow up to Michelle, what about people in rural Australia, people in big country towns? If you are in Ballarat, or if you are in Bathurst, the Pfizer vaccine is so hard to ship, you may not have it at your local hospital. Will people in country Australia have to drive to the big smoke to get that vaccine? Or should they just wait for AstraZeneca?
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: I think we'll find that there is likely to be a very short difference in time between the rollout for the two vaccines. So they will be approximate within a matter of weeks, if not days. So our whole approach has been to make sure that regional Australia is treated in the same way as urban Australia. That was something that the Prime Minister was absolutely insistent on from day one. I remember this time last year, Brendan, he was focused on making sure that no Australian missed out on ventilation. I remember that conversation. It was a very firm conversation. Equally, he's been absolutely focused on making sure that equitable access is a fundamental tenant of this, which is why we'll have over 1,000 points of presence. We went out to a tender to general practices around Australia to invite all general practices to do that, and we'll be going out in the coming weeks, if not days, to pharmacies, to invite all pharmacies to participate, each subject to meeting the technical and training requirements. So there will be multiple points of presence, state vaccination clinics, Commonwealth vaccination clinics, general practices, pharmacies and Indigenous medical centres.
JOURNALIST: With that phase is 1a how, do you actually choose which aged care residents and which quarantine workers get the vaccine first?
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: Obviously, there will be a process of ensuring that we work outwards. But at this point in time, the Department of Health is working on making sure that we have a rapid distribution to as many as possible. By definition, somebody has to be first. And we will celebrate every vaccination, and we want as many people to be vaccinated as possible. So, every vaccination will be a cause for celebration. Let me say this, we know that as you vaccinate a country, it will take time and some people will want to be earlier. We've seen some examples of that. But the medical advisors who have protected us over the course of this last year, exactly this last year, are the ones who are continuing to provide the advice on the vaccine rollout.
PRIME MINISTER: OK, we'll go to other issues and I'll pick up the question that you asked before. The Australia-China relationship is important to Australia. The China-Australia relationship is important to China. And we will, of course, remain absolutely open and available to meet, to discuss, any of the issues that have been identified. But those discussions, as I've made clear won't take place on the base of any sort of pre-emptive concessions on Australia's part on those matters. I don't think any Australian would want their Prime Minister to be conceding the points that they've set out. Our position on that is very clear, it's very honest, it's very transparent. But, of course, we value the trading and more broader comprehensive relationship, and we will be taking up whatever opportunities we believe is going to best position Australia to be in a position to advance that relationship. Now, this is a matter that the former Prime Minister Howard and I have discussed on many occasions. As you know, I speak to him pretty regularly about these and many other things. It's a topic that some time ago, and even more recently I was connecting with Prime Minister Rudd about these matters. So I'm always open to those who are very experienced in these areas and both of those former Prime Ministers are very experienced in those areas. But how this is done, well, we will continue to pursue that through the ways we are doing that. It's an important relationship, but it is a relationship that will be pursued on the basis of Australia's national interests, and without in any way compromising Australia's sovereignty.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, one of the world's biggest drug dealers has been arrested in the Netherlands, Tse Chi Lop, his organisation Sam Gor network is considered, perhaps putting 70 precent of methamphetamine on Australia's streets, on to the marketplace. How important is it that he be tried in Australia? Is there anything that you can tell us about his extradition?
PRIME MINISTER: I can't add much to that other than to say congratulations to all those Australian officers who did a fantastic job in pursuing this case. And it's a good example, Chris, of the areas in which Australia and China cooperate. Whether it's on issues of organised criminal gangs, counter-terrorism, biosecurity issues, these types of things. Australia has had a very good working relationship with China on those very important global matters. And we would look forward to having increasing good relations with them on issues of environmental management as well, not just around matters of climate, but particularly around energy technology. But I'd also say in terms of the health of our oceans and plastics and these matters as well. So there are many areas where we work together and cooperate. This is another one. But you're right. This individual has been responsible for shattering the lives and destroying the lives of an untold number of people, including here in Australia and he should be brought to justice, as he is, and he should pay for his crimes. OK, time for a couple more, but because we have our Australians of the Year gathering and I think you'll be up there for that and there's one amongst us.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, a survey has found that most Australians don't want the Australia Day date changed. Can I get your reaction to that? Are you surprised?
PRIME MINISTER: No, I'm not surprised. No, I'm not surprised.
JOURNALIST: Going back to the vaccine, sorry, just briefly. The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses and with the volatility in the global supply, are you making any contingencies to ensure that whoever gets the first 80,000 in the first week can get their follow-up in the state of time? And what is that recommended time that Australia will be pursuing between the two?
PRIME MINISTER: Greg answered that before in terms of the time-frame and that is why we've been so careful, because you've seen in other places where these things have become...
JOURNALIST: But does that mean the whole [inaudible].
PRIME MINISTER: See, we had this discussion last Friday as well and Brendan was in that discussion with the Premiers. You don't start what you can't finish, and finishing the job involves two doses. And so it's not only just that you can get two doses, but it's also the process of where you get those two doses. The digital system that is being used to ensure we know where they get them and so it's good for people to go to exactly the same place, the same GP or the same clinic. So that is the best way of ensuring the continuity of that system. So that is what has gone into our vaccination plan, and as the 21 days, Greg, as I understand is the time, and that's what we've planned for.
THE HON. GREG HUNT MP, MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE: So 21 days and we're planning exactly that.
JOURNALIST: Sorry Minister Hunt, Prime Minister, could we see vaccination passports for international students later this year? Or do you agree with Daniel Andrews and Minister Tudge that it is very much a 2022 proposition?
PRIME MINISTER: It's just too early to say. I don't want to create any false expectations there or false hopes. The whole issue around vaccination passports is one that the EU is very focused on at the moment and the way that you can accredit a particular vaccine and how that may potentially apply to broader movement of peoples over the course of the year as the Health Secretary said. At this point, there is no clear evidence about transmissibility, so that, of itself means that the question at this stage is somewhat premature. Our priorities in terms of entry into Australia I think are very clear. We're doing everything we can to get as many people back to Australia as we can, safely, without compromising the pressures that can be placed on our own quarantine systems. I had a good meeting with Premier Palaszczuk on Friday, in terms of what I would describe as a bit of a supplementary capacity that potentially could be done. But that only relates to an overflow capacity around charter flights. It's not an alternative. We looked at the issue of broader expansion of facilities like Howard Springs earlier in the year. I mean, if you want to get at least 5,000 people into Australia a week, which is what we had been achieving, then the idea that you can build some sort of national set of camps that can accommodate that, well, that's not a practical way to achieve it. The advice was, and I think it was right, and it was agreed to by the states and territories, that the best and most effective and safest way to do that is to take advantage of the accommodation capacity that sits through the hotel quarantine system that has been used. And that was the advice and the other options were considered. I mean, if people are suggesting that we rebuild all the detention facilities that were built under the previous Government in relation to the border crisis, well, we all know how much that cost, and we all know how that worked. So this has been a very effective way and successful way of doing it. I mean, over almost 80,000 Australians have come home since mid-September and that's been done very effectively by the states and territories. Of course, there have been some instances where quarantine hasn't been perfect but to expect perfection on that, I think in a global pandemic is unrealistic. What matters is then, is the supplementary supports that go around through tracing and other measures, which have proved to be very effective, particularly over this summer. Again, I thank Australians. Over this summer, we could have gone into a third wave. We could have been facing, right now, as Australia sort of kicks in again after Australia Day, people going back to work, we could have been going in and in the midst of a very serious third wave. Australians, to date have beaten that third wave. But the fight goes on. Last one.
JOURNALIST: On George Brandis coming home to holiday on the Sunshine Coast, while so many Australians can't come home from the UK, what's your opinion on that?
PRIME MINISTER: First of all, I'll simply give you the facts. He came back for meetings here in Australia, like many other heads of mission. He did not take the place of any other Australian. He got on the same planes that anyone else would. He spent two weeks here quarantining before he engaged in those meetings. He actually had a meeting with me when he was back, which is the case for most of the Heads of Missions of our senior posts around the country, as well as with the officials and DFAT and other ministers. He's an Australian and he spent some time with his family in his home state while he was here. They're the facts. That's what happened. OK, thank you very much.