Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Monday, 9 August 2021
Michael Rowland: Let's go back to vaccines now, and the federal government is expecting to have a third option by the middle of next month with Moderna's vaccine set to be approved soon. The finance minister, Simon Birmingham, joins us now from Canberra. Minister, good morning to you.
Simon Birmingham: Hello, Michael. Good to be with you again.
Michael Rowland: That'll be great news. But also tell us about reports now that Moderna is looking at Australia as a site to trial the Moderna vaccine for children under the age of 12. What do we know about that?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Michael, you're right that that Moderna is on track to receive all of the approvals to sell in Australia and then also for the shipments to start coming into Australia. I think it's important for people to appreciate this in pharmaceutical company terms is quite a new company that has had quite a task to scale up in terms of the global demand for their vaccine. But Australia will be receiving around one million doses in the first month next month of the Moderna vaccine, growing then to three million doses a month through the rest of this year. So 10 million doses in total in addition to the Pfizer coming in at one million doses per week, at present scaling up to two million doses per week from around October. And, of course, the very significant supply we have of AstraZeneca. In terms of younger age cohorts, as many people would be aware, Pfizer has now been approved for 12 to 16 year olds. And in terms of administering of that priority being given to 12 to 16 year olds who have immune compromised situations or the like, that give necessity to do their prioritisation. In terms of younger age groups, beyond that, look, their subject is always to all of the thorough health checks, balances and they will be, of course, decisions driven by scientists. Well and truly we'll be advised by that.
Michael Rowland: The company itself has said it's looking at Australia as a site for trialling its vaccine for kids under 12. What does the government know about that?
Simon Birmingham: Michael, I don't have too many details to hand on that. They would be working through the Therapeutic Goods Administration processes to get any approvals that are necessary for those sorts of trials. We are eager to make sure as vaccines get the full and thorough tick off of our health administrators and advisers that they then become available to Australians and that we get that stretched out across the population. And that's why with the 12 to 16 year old age cohort now being approved, the discussions have been underway from Lieutenant General Frewen and the federal government and with states and territories about a school based programs or other means to make sure we can get to that younger age cohort as soon as possible.
Michael Rowland: Ok, now all going well, those Moderna vaccines will be going into arms by the end of September. Let's say any vaccines are welcome at the moment. As you know, demand is far outstripping supply. So I want to ask you, why didn't the government try to strike a deal with Moderna earlier last year so those Moderna vaccines would be already here?
Simon Birmingham: Michael, as I've already said, Moderna is quite a young company in pharmaceutical terms, particularly a smaller one, at least in pharmaceutical company terms. So their ability to scale up has been a challenge right around the world.
Michael Rowland: So it wasn't around last year. There was Moderna around last year where the government at least couldn't reach out to and engage in early talks to get vaccines earlier?
Simon Birmingham: As you know, we were pursuing a number of vaccine strategies last year. And Moderna became part of that that pathway, just as we had been pursuing Pfizer, as we made the decisions around AstraZeneca, particularly based on the fact that Australia had the capability to manufacture here the mRNA style vaccines that both Pfizer and Moderna make are made in only a handful of locations around the world. No country that didn't previously have manufacturing capability for mRNA has been able to establish that yet. We are certainly in talks and have been in talks with the pharmaceutical industry to build that capability for Australia for the future.
Michael Rowland: Okay. The government has secured that deal, first secured the deal with Pfizer, of course, a much bigger company than Moderna back in November last year for 10 million doses. The health minister, Greg Hunt, told David Speers on Insiders yesterday there was no other deal available for more doses. What did he mean by that?
Simon Birmingham: Well, I think I think he meant just that, that the companies themselves have been in talks right across the world from their production hubs and at the time that Australia was having these discussions. And indeed, still today, despite the difficulties we're facing in New South Wales and in Victoria and parts of Queensland, Australia's global position remains far better than parts of Europe, parts of the Americas-
Michael Rowland: Sorry, I mean, that's not the point I'm asking. Why do countries like the US, the UK, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand all strike deals with Pfizer before we did in November last year?
Simon Birmingham: Michael, those countries, most of those that you've named had far more challenging COVID circumstances and the companies themselves engaging with those countries where, of course, giving priority to parts of the world-
Michael Rowland: But shouldn't Australia of heads its bets, shouldn't we of hedged our bets?
Simon Birmingham: Well, Michael, we certainly did seek to hedge our bets. It's why we made contracts for Pfizer and Moderna. You mentioned New Zealand in that list. New Zealand's vaccine rollout is not as advanced as Australia’s. Now, that's not a criticism of New Zealand. They're in a similar position to us in terms of the prioritisation that was given, just as indeed Taiwan has been at a comparable level to us. Japan and South Korea have, broadly speaking, been at comparable levels to us, as a part of the world, that it had a number of countries that had more success in suppressing COVID-19 we weren't at the priority end for the company’s manufacturing in the Americas, in Europe.
Michael Rowland: Right. We weren't at the front of the queue?
Simon Birmingham: We weren't the priority for those companies manufacturing in parts of the world that had far larger death tolls than we do.
Michael Rowland: Given the anger now in many parts of the country about people wanting vaccinations. And we're encouraging that people should go, but they simply can't in many parts of the country. Does the government have any regrets at all about not trying to get a better deal from Pfizer with more doses earlier than November last year? Any regrets at all?
Simon Birmingham: Michael, if we could go back in time, I'm sure we'd try all manner of different things that may or may not have made a jot of difference, because we were certainly trying very hard to secure the options for Australia at the time-
Michael Rowland: Well Pfizer would have made a huge jot of difference, if you had more Pfizer it'd make a huge difference now.
Simon Birmingham: And Michael, if we hadn't had changed advice along the way with AstraZeneca, that would have made a difference. Now, if the three point four million doses expected to turn up at the start of the year had turned up, that would have made a difference by now, too. We can all run on the ifs of hindsight but we don't get to live in hindsight. We live in the here and now. And that's why making sure we get the deliveries we have contracted. Noting, as I said before, that Australia remains, despite all our current difficulties, a world leader in the management of COVID that is still saved an estimated 30,000 lives across this country. We want to make sure we maintain that through to the end.
Michael Rowland: We're just about out of time. I want to talk about the here and now last and the Senate again will consider the government's legislation facilitating new COVID support packages for business. The government, again, is going to vote down an attempt by independent Senator Rex Patrick to insert an amendment there revealing just how much JobKeeper payments went to big business last year. Why is the government stopping that transparency measure?
Simon Birmingham: Jobkeeper was incredibly successful at saving jobs. It was put in place at a time when we had nationwide shutdowns occurring and enormous uncertainty, the businesses who claimed it were facing genuine threat of long term lockdowns and shutdowns at the time. And now, for many, it ended up being a slightly better proposition than had been expected at that stage. But they were all eligible for it under the rules struck at the time, because we wanted to make sure we could cover off that uncertainty. We don't think it's appropriate to create a circumstance where now they are vilified with some sort of pretence that they weren't eligible when they were eligible. And the actions of government and those businesses saved many thousands, if not millions of Australian jobs and indeed remains an important part of our economic recovery, not just now, but back from the current lockdown circumstances too.
Michael Rowland: Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time this morning.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you. My pleasure, Michael.