Questions from Four Corners – ABC

The Hon Greg Hunt MP

Minister for Health and Aged Care

The following questions were put to the Minister for Health and Aged Care by the ABC’s Four Corners program. The below responses were provided.

Since the Minister last spoke to Four Corners, Australia’s vaccine rollout has grown from 2,396,314 doses, to more than 12 million doses administered, with over 40% of the eligible population having received at least one dose and with a record 210,742 doses administered on Thursday 29 July.

This includes approximately 6.8 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine by the time this program airs.

It is deeply regrettable that the early promotion of the program and questions below appear to have an anti-AstraZeneca bias.

If Four Corners were to contribute to vaccine hesitancy, that would be deeply regrettable

What efforts did the Prime Minister make to directly lobby Pfizer’s CEO to speed up delivery of the Pfizer vaccine?

Did the PM speak directly to Albert Borla? If so, when?

Why didn’t the PM make greater efforts to directly lobby Mr Borla?

  • The presumptions of this question are false. The Government has continuously worked with Pfizer throughout the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

The Prime Minister and Minister Hunt wrote to the CEO of Pfizer in May and were successful in bringing forward three million doses from the fourth quarter of the year to the third. This has allowed us to receive an average of one million doses per week, rather than the 600,000 which was due for this quarter.

In addition, the Minister works with Pfizer on a continuous basis, as does the Department. The Prime Minister has also spoken with both Pfizer Australia’s Managing Director Anne Harris and the global CEO Albert Borla.

What is your response to Kevin Rudd’s claims that Australia failed to negotiate a deal for more Pfizer because our negotiators pushed too hard on price and sought Pfizer’s intellectual property?

  • This claim is false and has been refuted with facts on multiple occasions by multiple parties. Mr Rudd also sought to walk back his claims.

The claims about prices and intellectual property are patently false. Indeed Australia invested at a significant premium for onshore manufacturing, because as New Zealand can also attest, there were no early additional sources of Pfizer vaccine available.

The Minister, Government and Department of Health has previously dealt with these unsubstantiated, unsourced claims about its negotiations with Pfizer. While these are largely commercial-in-confidence discussions, the level of engagement with the company and categorization of those discussions has been wilfully and grossly misrepresented.

The Australian Government entered into an Advanced Purchase Agreement (APA) with Pfizer for the purchase of their COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible, whilst ensuring safe and effective vaccines for Australians based on the medical advice from SITAG and the maximum doses available.

As Pfizer’s Statement at the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 hearing on 28 January 2021 states:

“As Pfizer informed Parliament whilst giving evidence on the record to the Senate Select Committee on COVID-19 hearing on 28 January 2021, Pfizer proposed to the Australian Government the procurement of 10 million doses of our COVID-19 vaccine and that was the number initially contracted by the Government. The parties have since signed agreements for a further 30 million doses for 2021. Our discussions are confidential, however the supply of vaccine in Australia was developed following consultation with the Australian Government and each agreement was based on the availability of doses and earliest schedule that could be provided at that time.”

The Department has been actively engaged with Pfizer since very early in the pandemic. These discussions have been extensive and cooperative.

The Department began working with Pfizer shortly after the pandemic began.

The Department’s first formal meeting with Pfizer was on 10 July after Pfizer wrote to the Government advising they were now in a position to engage formally, while the COVID-19 vaccine candidate was in Phase 1 clinical trials. Since this time, there have been numerous formal meetings and phone engagements with the company as part of securing supply of the vaccine for the Australian population.

SITAG also met five times to consider in detail the latest data on the vaccine.

Pfizer was not allowed to commence formal negotiations until July at which time, the Australian Government moved immediately to formal negotiations, although there has been constant informal engagements prior to that time.

Why were the states not given a greater role in the distribution of the vaccines? What’s the government’s response to concerns that political considerations were placed ahead of the most efficient way to deliver vaccines?

  • The statement is false. Australia’s vaccination program is ordinarily distributed by GP’s. The program has been the basis of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, supplemented by state clinics, working in partnership.

The GP program covers over 5,146 GP’s and over 5,650 sites around Australia. This gives Australians maximum access to vaccination.

As of the date of this program airing, the GP vaccination program has delivered approximately 6.8 million vaccinations, including up to 125,000 vaccinations a day. Importantly, this channel is widely available across Australia.

From the outset, it was planned that the usual GP program would be supplemented with state vaccination clinics. At this point, there are over 800 state sites, delivering approximately 75,000 vaccinations a day. The two channels of primary care, existing mass vaccination clinics and the supplementary state vaccination clinics have combined to now deliver over 200,000 vaccinations a day.

In the coming weeks, the role of primary care will increase further, with additional pharmacies and general practices joining the rollout, expanding our national footprint to additional vaccination sites nationwide.

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is Australia’s largest logistical exercise in peacetime history and our GPs, pharmacists, private and public workforces are all playing their role.

It is surprising that Four Corners would consider excluding over 5,000 general practices from the vaccination program and denying millions of Australians access to the existing mass vaccination program via their GP’s, available in almost every community.

There has been conflicting communications and confused messaging about who should take AstraZeneca. What responsibility does the federal government take for the widespread confusion and hesitancy around the AstraZeneca vaccine?

  • Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Government has consistently followed the expert medical advice.

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has continued to meet weekly to assess the latest safety data and local epidemiology in making its risk-versus-benefit assessment for the use of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

Its advice has evolved, based on the latest evidence, and it is appropriate that this is promptly reflected in the messaging.

Australians who need further advice about vaccination are encouraged to speak to their healthcare professional.

We do know that the ABC has given widespread and largely unchallenged prominence to critics of AstraZeneca. This is particularly regrettable and we hope this program reverses this trend.

It would also be deeply regrettable if Four Corners were to assert or imply that any Government should ignore the advice of the nation’s expert advisory group on vaccine safety.

We will continue to follow their advice.

What’s your response to criticism that the government attempted to shift blame for Australia’s low vaccination rate onto ATAGI?

  • This statement is false. Over 6.8 million doses of AstraZeneca have been administered, in line with ATAGI advice.

Australians are continuing to come forward in record numbers for vaccination, with over 210,000 doses administered on Thursday July 29 for example.

At the time of this program’s airing, we will have reached over 12.3 million doses administered. This shows that Australians are listening to expert medical advice and are continuing to come forward to be vaccinated in record numbers

Minister Hunt has repeatedly expressed strong support for ATAGI and their decisions and positions. The Government has respected and adopted their advice at all times.

We are disappointed that the ABC has been a vehicle for AstraZeneca critics. We hope this program reflects the vital global role that the AstraZeneca vaccine has played both in Australia and globally.

Our advice is that over one billion AstraZeneca vaccines have been distributed in over 170 nations. The program may wish to reflect on its own role and the ABC’s broader role in providing an unchallenged platform for AstraZeneca critics or anti-AstraZeneca sentiment.

Please do not wait, if you are eligible, please be vaccinated now.

To what extent is the crisis in NSW about a lack of Pfizer, and what responsibility does the Federal Government take for this?

  • As Professor Murphy told the Senate Committee, “Delta outbreaks have occurred in the UK and they’re occurring in the US and Israel. Singapore has a higher vaccination rate and has locked down because of its delta outbreak.”

It is important to note that ATAGI advice states that all Sydney residents over the age of 18 can receive an AstraZeneca vaccine with informed consent, an option which a growing number of Sydney residents are choosing.

It would be deeply regrettable if this program were to ignore the ATAGI advice and to imply only one vaccine were suitable in Sydney, excluding the role AstraZeneca has played in ensuring that no fully vaccinated person has been in ICU or ventilation or lost their lives to COVID-19 in the current outbreak in Sydney.

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