RN DRIVE: 11/2/21

February 11, 2021


PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: Australia’s supply of the Pfizer vaccine will arrive within weeks after it was formally approved for export by the European Union. The Federal Government has secured 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which will be offered to the elderly, health workers and other vulnerable groups first. There were fears Europe could impose export controls after production delays caused supply problems but the European Commission says the first shipments will not be stopped. For more on this we are joined by the Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler. Mark Butler, thanks for your time this evening. There's still no departure or arrival date for the shipment. Are you confident Australia will actually get these doses?

MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING: We are obviously pleased to hear those reports from the EU and have some confirmation that we will get those doses at some point in the future. We hope to get the first shipment over the next couple of weeks, that's been an assurance given to us by the Government, but those will be relatively modest in size. We're told about 80,000 doses per week, at that level for some weeks before you see a scale up. So certainly a relatively modest size, but we're very pleased to see some confirmation from the EU that they're on their way.

KARVELAS: Do you give the Federal Government credit for securing the supply despite political pressure created by production shortages in in Europe?

BUTLER: That's really doing their job. They're the Federal Government in a global pandemic. I think that's what the Australian people expect them to do. Scott Morrison said last year that Australia was at the front of the queue for vaccines, but still, as Australians see 140 million people across the world being vaccinated so far, with some millions every day being vaccinated, we're still waiting for the first Australian to be vaccinated. So we have a long list of worthy objectives that have been outlined by Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt, we agree with most of them wholly - but we haven't seen much delivery whether you're talking about vaccine supplies actually arriving in Australia, the national booking system that people will use to book a vaccination, the training for workers who will be delivering the vaccination, particularly given that for the Pfizer vaccine, we'll be using what's called a multidose vial. So there are several doses in the same vial, which has never been used before in Australia. There are really some questions around delivery here. We see millions and millions of people vaccinated around the world Australians, I think are rightly starting to ask, when do things start here?

KARVELAS: Labor has been critical of the vaccine rollout timetable, do you accept that given the comparatively stable situation here, the fact that we've suppressed this virus so well, we don't need to be first?

BUTLER: I think we agree very much that we didn't need to rush the approval of the vaccines in the way in which the US and UK and some other countries they thought they needed to. There was a scale of emergency there that, frankly, we're very lucky not to have here. So we supported the TGA going through the process they went through as opposed to the emergency approval process you saw in some northern hemisphere countries. We do think we need some more detail about when we'll actually see these things rolling out. So some of the things I just mentioned, but also down the track - the diversification of our vaccine portfolio. We've been saying since the middle of last year that world's best practice was to have five or six vaccines on the table, we only had about three or four if you count the Queensland vaccine that had to be taken off the table. There are very highly effective vaccines, like the mRNA vaccine developed by Moderna, very highly effective, that apparently we haven't been able to negotiate any supplies of at all. So we want to know what's happening down the track, or what sort of vaccine diversification will there be negotiated by the Government to ensure we have the maximum range of booster shots available, if that's what we need, as we see this virus continue to mutate.

KARVELAS: Do you have confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine given it's less effective against the South African strain?

BUTLER: I think what we've seen over the last week in particular, is almost a daily flow of different pieces of research around the AstraZeneca vaccine. That's because it's been rolled out so widely around the world, particularly in the UK, but other places as well. Some of that research has been very positive. Some last week, for example, show that the AstraZeneca vaccine was quite effective in not only stopping disease, but also stopping infection or transmission, so people don't pass it on. That's very positive if we can achieve that it’s a great thing. Over the last several days, you have also seen some of that research about how effective it is against the so-called South Africa variant B1351. This was a very small trial, and it was only relatively young people - an average age of 31, which is a young cohort when you're looking at COVID trials. I think people are going to put that into perspective but obviously as this research continues to roll out, we expect our health experts here and TGA obviously, to look at it very closely.

KARVELAS: How much confidence do you think we can have in the findings of the World Health Organisation team that travelled to Wuhan given the restrictions that were placed on the movement?

BUTLER: I think we're still going through the detail of the report from that group. Obviously, we had some Australian representation, which gives us a particular insight. Their findings were not able to be utterly conclusive, which, in part just due to the nature of these things is hard to be absolutely definitive about, where a virus like this emerges from, I'm told by the experts. Obviously, it was a good thing that we're able to have the WHO team in country in China and start to look at these things. Partly to know what went on last year or the end of 2019, actually, but more importantly, possibly, to make sure that we're able to do all that we can to prevent the next pandemic.

KARVELAS: Should Australia accept the findings of the report? Or are we not there yet?

BUTLER: I'm not sure we are there yet, we are still going through it. And we will be interested to see a good level of discussion, obviously, by the government and the health authorities that advise the government, but more broadly, among the health community here in Australia. I'll be watching that very closely.

KARVELAS: Do you think it's necessary for South Australia and Queensland to close their borders? I mean, Queensland's not closing, but it’s certainly restricting through the permit system their borders in response to the latest outbreak in in Melbourne.
BUTLER: These are very difficult issues for communities. I’m in South Australia, as you know PK, and that's going to have a very serious impact on a number of South Australians. The Fringe Festival, a very important festival for our state, is going to be very heavily impacted. We've seen quite dangerous scenes as people rush to get across the border with at least one fatal traffic accident happening. So these things cause very major disruption but I think what has marked out Australia from some other countries, is the fact that we follow the health advice. When the health experts get together, they consider what's happening in other jurisdictions, and they take decisions about their own communities based on that information. I think the right thing is to follow that advice. I think that's what we've done here in Australia.
KARVELAS: Are Victorians entitled to be frustrated that there still appear to be gaps in the hotel quarantine system? Including staff not having the right PPE?
BUTLER: What you've seen over the last three months is all five of our biggest cities impacted by outbreaks and hotel quarantine. These outbreaks at hotel quarantine are the biggest failing we have in our COVID response right now. The point I'd make is it's a failing that really rests with the national government - the government that's always had responsibility for quarantine arrangements with our international borders. The AMA said yesterday that they think urgent action nationally is required. It's not just a Victorian issue. It is this week, but in previous weeks, it's been here in Adelaide, it's been in Perth, Brisbane and Sydney. We've made the point now for some time that the Prime Minister needs to act and start acting upon some of the recommendations he received last year from Jane Halton about national standards, around workforce in quarantine centres, the use of personal protective equipment. There's a big debate about masks because of what's happened at the Holiday Inn in Melbourne, as well. Also there's this vexed debate about the importance of ventilation. So I think it's time for the Prime Minister to step up, not only looking at national facilities potentially, but to the extent there is still hotel quarantine in our major CBD’s, there is a big question mark over the national standards.
KARVELAS: Are the weekly AHPPC meetings a good response to what's clearly an ongoing risk in the hotel quarantine system?
BUTLER: The more that our top experts are talking to each other, the better. I think we've been served so magnificently well by those experts over the course of the last 12 months but that doesn't mean that the Prime Minister and the Minister don't have their level of responsibility as well. As I said, they were delivered a report last year, briefed on it several times, about things that the national government could do to start to alleviate pressure on our quarantining arrangements. People want to see Australian citizens able to return home from overseas, but they want that system to operate in a way that doesn't pose broader risks to the community. I don't think they've got that level of confidence given what we've seen over the last three months right now. It’s time for the Prime Minister to step up, look at some alternative quarantine arrangements outside of our major CBD’s. And to the extent hotel quarantine continues - to have some much stronger standards around those things I talked about workforce, personal protective equipment, particularly masking, but also ventilation arrangements to deal with the fact that this virus appears to be airborne.
KARVELAS: Mark Butler lovely to speak to you tonight.
BUTLER: Thanks Patricia.