Topics: COVID-19 vaccine request for information, aviation industry, COVIDSafe app and personal protective equipment
Karen Andrews: The health and safety of Australians is the Morrison Government’s number one priority. We have been searching for a number of months now for vaccine candidates so that we are able to deal with this COVID crisis. We are working with multiple research organisations across Australia and across the world. We are also very focused on making sure that when a viable vaccine becomes available, Australia is going to be in the best possible position to be able to manufacture that right here in Australia. So we do have manufacturers already with capability. We of course don’t know yet what that vaccine will look like, so it’s important that we explore additional opportunities for manufacture. So we have released a request for information for just to go very broadly for the components that will be needed for us to manufacture a vaccine here in Australia. So we’re seeking input from manufacturers regarding their capacity to manufacture a vaccine here, but also to look at our capability to source and to produce things such as the glass vials, the packaging, everything that goes with the production of the vaccine. We will continue to work in the best interests of all Australians because we know that until such a time as there is a vaccine or a treatment or both, that life will not return to what it was in the past. It’s vitally important that we are prepared and as a Government, we have taken every single step that we can to make sure that Australia is best placed to be able to access a vaccine and to produce it here in Australia. But we will continue to work with other organisations throughout the world and across Australia to make sure that that happens.
So I’m happy to take questions.
Question: Are there any particular vaccines broadly you’re planning to fund?
Karen Andrews: We are working with a number of research organisations. So, there’s the University of Queensland that is well on the path of testing a vaccine candidate. There are other vaccine candidates that are being tested here in Australia, CSIRO is working very closely with Oxford University to look at what the opportunities are for us to continue to work with the development of that particular vaccine. But there are multiple candidates for vaccines being developed across the world. And I think what’s important to know – this is the reason why the Government has taken such a broad national approach – is that many of the vaccine candidates that are being developed and we have the evidence of this from past vaccine development, many of those will actually not go on to a viable vaccine. That’s why it’s important that we work with as many organisations as we possibly can, as well as conducting our own research here in Australia.
Question: If that Oxford University vaccine is successful, will Australia get access to anything made in the UK?
Karen Andrews: We’re working very closely with the Oxford vaccine developers to make sure that we are best placed to be able to access that vaccine. We are taking a very broad brush approach so that we are not going to be left behind in this and I can assure Australians that this Government takes very seriously its commitments and its obligations to make sure that we are on the frontline of developing a vaccine and making that available to Australians. That’s why we have our focus on manufacturing so that we can step up our manufacturing capability here as soon as a vaccine is ready.
Question: Is this about manufacturing and using it in Australia or manufacturing and exporting the vaccine?
Karen Andrews: There’s multiple strings to what we are doing now. We’re certainly looking at what we can do to access any vaccine that is produced or manufactured overseas so Australians would be able to access that, but we’re also making sure that we are ramping up our manufacturing capacity here in Australia. And of course, we will look to develop that for our own use here in Australia, but yes, I would be very interested in exploring export opportunities. This is an opportunity for all Australians to work together with everyone around the world. Anyone who chooses to keep the vaccine to themselves will be judged very, very harshly by history. So we are ready, willing and able to assist our global partners.
Question: Just with the Australian contenders, the vaccine being developed by Flinders University. He says it hasn’t received a single cent of government funding to assist with that. Why is that?
Karen Andrews: Look, we have been supporting the vaccine development in a number of areas now, and we have committed $10 million to the CSIRO. We’ve also committed $220 million for a research centre that’s based in Victoria as well. And in fact, we’ve committed funding to a number of organisations to support them. We’re looking at where our viable vaccine candidates are going to be, and at the moment, we are focusing on the Oxford University and we’re focusing on the University of Queensland. But we are ready, willing and able to provide support as we can.
Question: But why has he missed out? I mean, the Flinders University vaccine has completed phase 1 trials but still doesn’t have any government funding at all. Why’s that?
Karen Andrews: I’m very happy to talk to that university. I’m very happy to talk to other research organisations. What we want is a coordinated approach here so that we can be on the frontline of support for Australians but also to play our part on the world stage with vaccines. So I’m very happy to talk the university and to any other research organisations that have a viable candidate they’d like to take forward.
Question: In terms of securing access to those potential international vaccines, what’s it take? Is it money, diplomacy, is it both?
Karen Andrews: It’s a range of things, it’s clearly the diplomacy in the first instance. It’s the engagement with other nations, with other research organisations. We are in a very strong position with that because we’ve developed relationships over many, many years, particularly in the science community. So we already have very strong relationships. Now yes we will be looking at the international implications of that so [indistinct] foreign affairs, [indistinct] trade issues that’s been developed. In fact, quite frankly, this is a whole of government approach, and I think that what we do see under the Morrison Government is that we approach issues such as this very strategically and it doesn’t just sit in one area; it sits in a number of portfolios with a number of ministers with responsibility.
Question: What if it’s developed in a place like Russia or China first, would Australians have to wait longer to see the vaccine?
Karen Andrews: Look, quite frankly, that’s a hypothetical question because the candidates at the moment that are showing significant promise are those from Oxford and from UQ here so, they are well-advanced in their trials. So, we will continue to work with them but look we will not shut out any opportunity.
Question: What is it about the Oxford University vaccine that is appealing at the moment?
Karen Andrews: Well, our scientific research organisation CSIRO has worked very closely with Oxford, and they have confidence in that vaccine and they have said that they believe that it is likely to become a viable vaccine, but it is still considered to be in the relatively early stages, even if they are well-advanced in their testing. We still have a way to go with this. And I think it’s important to note that the failure rate for vaccine candidates is actually quite high, and until you have a vaccine through all three phases of the testing, it’s quite possible that any one of those will fail. And that’s why we need to go very widely in our approach so that we are able to be in a position to help with the development of a viable vaccine candidate.
Question: With Sydney Airport asking shareholders for additional capital and Canberra Airport shutting on Saturdays are you concerned about the viability of the aviation industry?
Karen Andrews: Look, aviation is a very important sector for us here in Australia, and I think we’ll need to be very clear that there are a number of sectors that have been extremely damaged with what has happened with the COVID crisis. Aviation is one of those that is significantly struggling. But tourism is a significant sector that has been damaged. Retail has been significantly damaged. With the aviation industry, people are not travelling. Some borders are shut and it’s impossible for people to travel anyway. That is going to have an impact on the aviation sector, and it is [indistinct].
Question: So, do you find that news concerning about Sydney and Canberra airports?
Karen Andrews: Yes, of course it’s concerning. What’s happening to industry across Australia is particularly important, and it’s very disappointing where we are at the moment. But I think what’s important is that we need to start looking at the solutions as to how are we going to keep industry operating. Because the long-term answer cannot be that we keep shutting everything down. We need to know how to live and to work in the COVID environment, because quite frankly, this will be with us for many, many months.
Question: Why isn’t the Australian Government throwing more money at this vaccine development? I mean the figures you’re saying today really are not very big in the scheme of things. The US government’s thrown $10 billion at vaccine development. Why isn’t the Australian Government throwing more money at vaccine development?
Karen Andrews: We’re very focused on the outcome, and we’re working in partnership with a number of organisations to try and develop that, and of course, the request for information that has gone out today is requesting information from our manufacturers. We will continue to build that, we will continue to support, but we’re looking at what the outcomes are going to be. And quite frankly, we’re just not going to throw money away. We are going to continue with the approach that we have taken, which is strategic, and it’s positioning Australia quite well for the position when a vaccine is identified.
Question: What sort of capacity does Australia have to manufacture a vaccine and the vials to go with it?
Karen Andrews: Well, we already manufacture flu vaccine here in Australia, so for those that have had a flu vaccine this year or in previous years, that was most likely made here in Australia by CSL, Commonwealth Serum Laboratories, so they do have the capacity and the expertise to be able to manufacture a vaccine here in Australia. So, they’re one of the lead manufacturers for us here, but there are others. Astra Zenica manufactures also in Sydney.
Question: How beneficial has the COVIDSafe app been in tracking and tracing cases across the nation?
Karen Andrews: The reports have actually been quite positive, particularly in New South Wales, that the COVIDSafe app has been a very positive mechanism. And what I would say is that it is important that we use every single tool that we can when we’re looking at contract tracing. So, the COVIDSafe app is important. It would obviously be better if more people downloaded the app, so I would encourage as many people as possible who have not yet downloaded the app to make sure that they do and then that information will be available for the appropriate health authorities to access at a time that they need to contact trace.
Question: Obviously there are issues in Victoria with personal protective equipment at aged care homes. I’m just wondering how that’s going in Queensland now that they’ve come out of lockdown on Monday.
Karen Andrews: So, personal protective equipment was one of the things that we focused on very clearly from the start, so back in late January, early February, we were starting to look at personal protective equipment. At that time, we only had one manufacturer of PPE here in Australia. They ramped up their production. There’s now a number, four or five different manufacturers in Australia that are producing, for example, face masks. So, it is a priority for us. My advice is that we do have big stockpiles in the national stockpile, but we also have the capacity here in Australia for personal protective equipment. So, at this point in time we have adequate supplies. We will obviously be monitoring that on a day to day basis. I monitor that through my department. I am well aware of what various stock limits are around the country.
Question: Given views about the spread of coronavirus, do you think it would be appropriate to hold political fundraising dinners including travelling ministers in the next sitting period?
Karen Andrews: Look, I haven’t even turned my mind to that issue. My focus is absolutely on building our manufacturing capacity here in Australia, doing all we possibly can to protect as many jobs as we can. But importantly to build the road to recovery. Because there will be a recovery, we just need to make sure that we get ourselves through the health crisis and that we’re focused on the future.
Question: Are there manufacturers in Queensland who could help produce a vaccine?
Karen Andrews: Look, potentially there are and that’s why we’ve gone out very broadly with the request for information because what we found several months ago, that there were a number of manufacturers from right across Australia that were able to pivot their manufacturing to produce what was needed. So, that’s why we’re not relying on just the information that we have at hand. We’re going out very widely. And there may well be multiple manufacturers that put their hand up to produce either the vaccine itself or the component parts.
Okay. Thank you very much.