Department of Health Secretary, Professor Brendan Murphy interview on Sunday Agenda on 21 March 2021 – Australian Government Department of Health

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Date published: 

21 March 2021

Media type: 

Transcript

Audience: 

General public

KIERAN GILBERT:  

Let’s bring in Andrew Clennell, now. Andrew, you spoke to the Head of the Health Department, and some interesting discussion around the vaccine.

ANDREW CLENNELL:    

Yes, let’s hear from Brendan Murphy now as we discuss everything from the vaccine to international travel.

[Excerpt]

ANDREW CLENNELL:    

Brendan Murphy, thanks for your time.

BRENDAN MURPHY:    

Great pleasure.

ANDREW CLENNELL:    

So, we’ve seen the situation with the EU holding up a lot of the vaccines. Can you take us through what has happened and is happening there? I understand Britain helped us obtain vaccines at one point, but even- now they’re even struggling to get it.

BRENDAN MURPHY:    

It’s a tricky issue, Andrew, because the countries that we’re getting vaccines from all have a lot of community transmission, and they’ve all got people in hospital who are sick. And so whilst we feel rightly that we had contractual obligations with AstraZeneca to supply 3.8 million doses and they have only been able to provide 700,000, the company is very keen to get them to us, but these countries have, not surprisingly I suppose, been blocking the export.

I mean the UK have helped us a lot. They’ve- we’ve had, you know, two shipments that have been really useful. We’ve had 700,000 doses in Australia, and that’s helped us with out rollout. Obviously, we’d have loved to have more, but the exciting this is the onli- is the production of local product, which will happen from next week.

ANDREW CLENNELL:    

I mean, does it put into danger the October first dose deadline? Surely it does. You can’t really rock solid guarantee that, can you?

BRENDAN MURPHY:    

Well, we were always dependent mostly on our domestic supply. Our strategy was based on the CSL AstraZeneca partnership in Melbourne, in Parkville, producing hopefully more than 1 million doses a week. And we’re pushing to get that increased as much as possible. At the moment, we are still on target to give every Australian who wants it a first dose by the end of October. And we’re going to try and bring that forward as much as we can. But the big dependency at the moment is vaccine supply. But we’re in a much better position than most of the rest of the world. Only 20 countries in the world are making vaccines, and we’re one of them.

ANDREW CLENNELL:    

So, there’s obviously a lot of angst around the place around the vaccine: is it safe? Is it the right one? Will we be able to get it? What’s your message to Australians generally on this?

BRENDAN MURPHY:    

My message to Australians is: 12 months ago, I would have said there’s no hope we would have had vaccines in early 2021. And if we did, when we do get them, I would have thought they’d be mildly, partially effective. We are in a wonderful position now. We’ve got two really good vaccines, very good vaccines that have got real world experience. You know, in the UK now, more than 11 million people have had the AstraZeneca vaccine. And around the world, many, many millions of people have had the Pfizer vaccine. And the data that’s coming out of all of those countries is that both vaccines are really good at preventing severe disease, preventing hospitalisation, preventing death, and are probably likely to help prevent transmission. Pfizer will come steadily through the year, and AstraZeneca will come in really large amounts when CSL starts producing. So they’re really, really good vaccines and I’m confident that they’re safe. Been a bit of noise around from, you know, some of the European countries. But the real data doesn’t show any evidence of safety concerns.

ANDREW CLENNELL:    

So what’s your theory on that? I mean, why are they suspending the use of them for these blood clots when the figures, we’re getting told, are just so small? They’re sort of normal figures in terms of blood clots in the community. What’s happened here?

BRENDAN MURPHY:    

Yeah. Well, I think what’s happened is that there have been some unusual types of blood clots seen in a couple of people, in younger people, and people have got anxious. And they’ve, rather than look at the data about, you know, whether there’s any increase in incidence in the vaccinated versus the non-vaccinated population, people have asked for an investigation. They’ve seen something that they’ve seen to be strange. Sometimes when you get a little cluster of things, people get anxious, and that’s what’s happened. And once one country has asked for an investigation [indistinct]… other countries in Europe often follow suit.

ANDREW CLENNELL:    

I mean, you said earlier in the year international borders would not open probably till next year. Is that still your thinking? Or might it be even longer years before we can go overseas and come back and not have to quarantine?

BRENDAN MURPHY:    

It’s really hard to make predictions about that, Andrew. I mean, we- I think the first challenge for us when we get a lot of our population vaccinated, particularly the vulnerable people who are at risk of severe disease, is for us as a nation to open up, reduce all of the restrictions and make sure we don’t close any more state borders and that we are more confident about responding to small outbreaks. But if- as we get more and more Australians vaccinated and as more and more countries around the world get vaccinated, we will start to progressively look at what sort of border and quarantine measures we have to do.

We might think about, for example, reducing the length of quarantine or more home quarantine, particularly for vaccinated people. Our risk tolerance will change over the second half of this year. I think what I’ve said is nobody can really predict what will happen with international borders. I’m hopeful that pretty good international travel will happen next year, but it’s just too early to tell because there are things we don’t know about the vaccines yet. We don’t know how long the protection will last. We don’t know how good they are at preventing asymptomatic transmission, and we don’t know how good they are against the variant strains that might predominate at some time. We might need to give people boosters every year. We just don’t know that yet.

ANDREW CLENNELL:    Will life ever return to normal, or will we forever have QR codes and social distancing and the like now?

BRENDAN MURPHY:    

I think life will return to normal, but I think we’ve just got to be patient. I think we will get back to a new normal. As I said, it may be that COVID the virus is going to be with us, but if everyone- and everyone might need an annual booster dose like we have with flu, but it won’t- as long as most of the population are protected, most people who get this virus and have mild disease. But as long as(*) we’ve protected those vulnerable people, I think we can get back to normal, but we just need to be patient.

ANDREW CLENNELL:    

The PNG situation, what is the worst case scenario there, and should we have acted earlier to assist?

BRENDAN MURPHY:    

Well, I think we’ve acted as soon as we were aware that there was widespread community transmission. One of the challenges in PNG is that their testing rates haven’t been very high. It’s been quite hard to get data and information out of PNG. But now that we know that there is widespread community transmission – again, not a lot of positive tests, but we know from our intel on the ground that there’s a lot of health care worker infections, a lot of people infected.

So, we’re- obviously there are two things. Obviously, we want to protect Australians from people coming from PNG, and we’ve made some changes to entry requirements for people from PNG. But more importantly, we want to protect this very important neighbour of ours. So we’re sending, you know, immediately some of our precious vaccine doses there to protect the healthcare workers. We’re sending a range of protective equipment. We’re sending a medical support team, and we’re going to send some ventilators that we bought to protect Australia and provide some support to that. So- and we’re continually reviewing what support we provide. But it is it is a real concern.

ANDREW CLENNELL:    

Do you fear or can you understand why a lot of Australians will be reluctant to vaccinate because of what you said earlier? No community transmission. There just doesn’t seem- even though you’ve got this rush on the GP clinics, apparently, there might not be a rush from a lot of people.

BRENDAN MURPHY:    

Well, we can’t get back to normal until we have a vaccinated population. And remember, you know, we thought we were out of the worst of this back last July, and then we had that Victorian second wave. So this is a highly infectious virus. We have not got an immune population in Australia. So you just need one big community outbreak and you can get devastating consequences. So if we want- and that’s why our border protections have had to stay in place. So if a community doesn’t get vaccinated, we can’t get back to normal. So I’ve had the vaccine. I didn’t have any side effects and- the AstraZeneca vaccine, and I can tell you, it’s a great vaccine. I’ve got great faith in it.

BRENDAN MURPHY:    

 And finally, just a personal question. How has the pandemic changed your life? I mean, you moved into Health Secretary. What’s that like? But did you feel you were ready for it? Obviously, it blew your profile sky high. How do you look at how you responded? I mean, things like the international borders, I guess you could have closed earlier, but generally responded [inaudible]…

BRENDAN MURPHY:    We’re one of the first countries to close borders, and the rest of the world was saying that wasn’t the right thing to do. It was the right thing to do. And we- look, it was more when I was CMO in the first six months of the pandemic, I had perhaps an unwelcome public profile. But the great thing about Australia’s response to the pandemic is that every one of our governments, all- the Prime Minister and all the premiers have basically adopted a mantra of taking the health advice. And my job when I was CMO and Chair of AHPPC was to provide the best advice to government to guide their decisions. And I think that’s why we’ve done so well as a nation.

ANDREW CLENNELL:    

And was there a particular worst moment at the start that you can remember? A moment of real fear?

BRENDAN MURPHY:  

 I think when we- back a year ago, you know, in March, when we first introduced those physical distancing measures, when we had community transmission in a number of states, and we saw what had happened in Italy and other places, we were pretty frightened that if we didn’t take measures and get our public health control systems in place, we could have had what’s happened in most of the world. So, yes, I was pretty anxious back then.

ANDREW CLENNELL:    

Thanks so much for your time

BRENDAN MURPHY:    

Pleasure.
 

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