SKY NEWS: 09/02/21

February 09, 2021


TOM CONNELL, HOST: The EU is committed to not blocking the supply of Pfizer for Australia. Joining me live now is the Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler, thanks for your time. Do you welcome the assurance we've had this morning from the EU Ambassador?

MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGEING: Of course we do. We're very keen to see these supplies start to arrive in Australia, to be batch tested by the TGA, and then start to roll out to Australian patients. You know, we're ready for this to get going. We heard this morning that fully a quarter of the UK adult population has already been vaccinated, well more than a third in Israel, about 30 million or more Americans have been vaccinated, so it's time to get going on this. I think we'll all be very happy when they start arriving on Australian shores.

CONNELL: The other vaccine, of course, so far - well not approved yet but it seems very imminent - is AstraZeneca. The Health Minister is standing by this use despite some reports of a minimal study in South Africa, it might not prevent virus spreading when it comes in particular to the South African strain. What do you make of the Health Minister's assurances here?

BUTLER: There's been really an avalanche of different pieces of research around the AstraZeneca trial over the last several days really, because it's rolled out so widely in a number of countries, particularly the UK. Some of that has been very positive. For example, late last week we saw some very positive research that suggested that not only does the AstraZeneca vaccine prevent disease, particularly serious disease, which is the primary focus, it also quite effectively prevents transmission. So not only do you not get sick, but you also don't pass the disease on. These are very positive outcomes. We saw some research over the weekend that suggested the AstraZeneca vaccine was also quite effective against the UK variant B117. But as you said, a small study of relatively young patients with an average age of 31, yesterday suggested that the AstraZeneca vaccine was maybe not particularly effective at preventing mild disease in a young cohort. So particularly against the South African variant B1351. 

The TGA here in Australia, I think, are the best medicines authority in the world and will be obviously looking at all of these pieces of research very closely. There's going to be a lot more research, I suspect, rolling out overcoming days as people, authorities, health researchers around the world are looking at these vaccines very, very closely. Some of it will be positive, some of it will raise concerns and I think it's important we keep perspective, and keep listening to the advice of the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

CONNELL: So that perspective has been, again, from the point of view of the Australian Government the primary aim, and you actually alluded to it there - that it's preventing serious illness and death. We're talking a lot lately, there's more and more focus on case numbers. But it's not about getting to just zero that that obsession, perhaps is one that we need to leave in the past? Do you agree that as long as we can eliminate deaths, COVID becomes another flu and we do tolerate the illness that flu brings in Australia, we don't want to grind the economy to a halt because of the flu. So is that the approach going forward?

BUTLER: Well, I wouldn't want to suggest that our only primary focus is to prevent deaths. It's also to prevent serious disease, this can be very debilitating disease, even for people who survive. There is the syndrome known as long COVID. So I think there really is a broad aim to make use more like the common cold. But if the vaccines also are successful in preventing transmission, which some research from the AstraZeneca vaccine shows could be the case, I think it was up to 67 per cent effective in preventing transmission as well as symptomatic disease, then we really are achieving the Holy Grail if we can stop this disease from spreading as well as being quite a serious disease. 

I think we'll see more and more research. We're obviously focused on the AstraZeneca vaccine at the moment, because there's quite a bit of research coming out about that and it is the primary vaccine we'll be relying upon in terms of dose numbers over the next several months. But we'll also be keen to look at research around the Pfizer vaccine, which is the one with a very high effectiveness right away, an efficacy right around 95 per cent, which the Government assures us will start to arrive at the end of February. 

All of this though does raise some longer term questions. By longer term I mean over the course of this year which is, what are we doing to diversify our vaccine portfolio? Experts around the world are concerned that these variants, these mutations, so far  coming out of South Africa, the UK, and Brazil have the potential to outpace the vaccine, to escape the vaccine. So researchers will be looking to adapt the vaccines by way of booster shots to make sure that we are able to protect the population against any variance. Now that means I think we want to have as many options available to us as possible. I've asked the question a number of times how negotiations between the Government and Moderna, for example, are progressing. This is the other very highly effective mRNA vaccine similar to Pfizer. A state of the art vaccine technology, which experts tell us will be easier to adapt to new variants, easier than the more traditional viral vector vaccines, which AstraZeneca is a type of. So we need some further advice about this from Government.

We recognise that the focus right now is to get needles into people's arms. As I said, 12 million in the UK have been vaccinated, zero here in Australia, 30 million in the US, zero here in Australia. It's time, subject to the authority approval processes, to get this thing underway.

CONNELL: Well, again, the Government continues to be asked about those negotiations, the more the better, I guess. But you can’t have every vaccine perhaps in the world -

BUTLER: On that point, Tom, in the middle of last year we were saying that the best practice was to have about five or six options on the table and this Government didn't have that many. We should have been, the Prime Minister said we were at the front of the queue. We should have been in negotiations with Moderna, at the very least, Johnson and Johnson, as well. It appears we're not. So we will continue to ask questions about those issues. 

CONNELL: Okay, fair enough. The vaccine strategy though, as we see it rolled out and we see all the vulnerable groups in Australia inoculated. At that point, would you hope states and territories no longer put up borders or have lockdowns for a breakout of cases given at that point, we will not be looking at, you know, the prospects of deaths or serious illness?

BUTLER: I think the great benefit of the Australian experience over the last several months is we have taken and followed the public health advice. And we've seen different examples around the world of the impact of not doing that. I think the great thing about this country has been on a bipartisan basis, it's been the view of all governments to follow the public health advice. So quite what the situation with borders, lockdowns and other restrictions is going to be as the vaccine strategy reaches different milestones is something we would ask the different health advice to advise us about.

CONNELL: Just to jump in there, that advice always comes with different risk profiles, right? You get advice and you have a risk profile. Do you agree with the Prime Minister who said on Friday, the risk profile essentially is changing once the vaccine has been rolled out to those groups?

BUTLER: Well, of course, the risk profile will be changing and I'm very confident the Labour Party has the greatest confidence that our public health committees will be taking that change and risk profile into account when they consider the advice they're giving to the community and to governance.

CONNELL: Shadow Health Minister Mark Butler, thank you for your time.