Senator the Hon. Simon Birmingham
Minister for Finance
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Senator for South Australia
Date: Monday, 9 August 2021
Peter Stefanovic: Let's head to Canberra now. I believe the Finance Minister is with us. Simon Birmingham is there. Minister, good to see you. Thanks for your time this morning. Just chasing some confirmation on this report this morning that Australia may well be a test site for Moderna to study COVID vaccines on essentially babies as young as six months old. Is that happening?
Simon Birmingham: G'day, Pete, good to be with you. So, Moderna are certainly looking at trialling vaccination on children. Now, this is something that ultimately, as a government, we wish to see vaccines for COVID-19 available to the entire population, including children. But importantly, there's a few steps that have to be gone through as part of this journey. Moderna is looking at a global trial. Australia may be part of that, but that will be subject to all of the technical and scientific advice that needs to be provided. And then any subsequent rollout or approvals would be subject to the normal Therapeutic Goods Administration processes.
Peter Stefanovic: Have you got a timeframe on that?
Simon Birmingham: Not that I can share at present, because it does depend very much on the progress around not only those approvals, but then the nature in the way such scientific trials take place. Australia is a country that has a very successful childhood immunisation program. Around 95 per cent of all Australian children proceed through trusted, verified vaccines. And ultimately, we would hope that COVID-19 is able to be part of that mix.
Peter Stefanovic: Okay. When- is there any chance of Australia now securing any of the extra twenty six million vaccine doses that the US has sitting there unused?
Simon Birmingham: We're always looking for opportunities in terms of potentially bringing forward or adding to the vaccine supply, but it is still a hugely competitive global situation and Australia's vaccine rollout is slightly above the world average, despite all the negativity that people hear. And so that, I think, is something that viewers need to bear in mind as to just how many countries and particularly countries, often in far worse health circumstances than ours. Notwithstanding the difficulties we're facing in Sydney and other parts of the country right now, are of course, all desperately seeking vaccines for their circumstances. We have a very strong pipeline of supply. We can bring some of that forward or can secure extra, we will. But right now we're getting around one million doses per week of Pfizer that will grow to around two million doses per week in October. Next month, we will get the first one million doses of the Moderna vaccine that will grow to around three million per month in October. So there will be a very strong supply coming to build on what is already a record rate of vaccination that is happening now with more than a million doses being administered every six days in Australia.
Peter Stefanovic: But when it comes to this extra supply from the US, I mean, our approaches is being made. Are you leaning on them at all or are you not really fussed about it?
Simon Birmingham: No, I can assure you that approaches are continuously being made at different levels, in different quarters right around the world, now, that's enabled us to be able to bring forward some elements of supply. It's what it's put alongside to the use of AstraZeneca, Australia's vaccine rollout ahead of, say, New Zealand's at this point in time and sees us keeping company with Japan, with South Korea, with Taiwan as parts of the world in a broad sense that haven't had the same devastating health consequences from COVID-19 as, say, the Americas and Europe did. And that, of course, is why those companies manufacturing in those parts of Europe and the US clearly prioritised their parts of the world-
Peter Stefanovic: It sounds like you're not really confident on that front. Sounds like you're not really confident on that front with those extra supplies from US.
Simon Birmingham: This is a highly competitive global marketplace, and so I'm not going to talk anything up, unless until it's actually here and in the bank.
Peter Stefanovic: We heard from Michael McCaul, senior Republican, on Shari's program last night. He says that the Americans have a have a moral responsibility to its allies. I mean, is that something that gives you encouragement?
Simon Birmingham: Look, we will use every message that we can in terms of the discussions that we can have with different parts of the world, but equally you want to talk about moral responsibilities, well, all of us is as advanced nations and particularly countries managing COVID far more successfully than less developed parts of the world have moral responsibilities to less developed countries facing huge health crises. Things are tough in Australia right now. I don't shy away from that, but things are a whole lot tougher, uglier and more difficult in many, many other parts of the world. And that's certainly why we, in terms of surplus, AstraZeneca, continue to use that in countries like Papua New Guinea and Fiji and regional friends and partners to make sure that we support them through these very tough times as well. So moral responsibilities spread a fair way in that regard.
Peter Stefanovic: When it comes to the New South Wales premier, she has announced some plans to ease some restrictions as soon as vaccination rate hits 50 per cent. That's below the Doherty Institute modelling. How would you feel about that? Do you support that?
Simon Birmingham: Depends very much what they are and how it's done. So, Pete when you look at what I've seen some of the reports about careful approaches to allowing some construction activity to resume. Victoria was able to manage having some construction activity undertaken while still getting on top of an outbreak. And that was without a vaccine program in place, admittedly, also without it being the Delta variant. So there are pros and cons to consider, I trust the New South Wales government will look carefully at its health advice and expect them to do everything they can to still get on top of this outbreak. But clearly where they can inside that health advice, safely let people resume certain activities, then that's okay.
Peter Stefanovic: There's just not going to be interstate travel from Sydney or New South Wales at least, is there, when vaccination levels are 50 per cent and not near 80 per cent?
Simon Birmingham: I think we can safely assume that other states will remain with closed borders to New South Wales for much of the rest of this year, whilst we do drive those vaccination rates up into the higher levels, we should have confidence that we will get there. 81 per cent of over 70s have now had a first dose, around 42 per cent I think it is of the entire over 16 population has had a first dose. So we're seeing those numbers climb really strongly and I'm confident we will hit targets this year. But quite understandably, other states and territories will want to make sure they protect themselves from the delivery outbreak and that's important in terms of the openness of those economies and communities.
Peter Stefanovic: So while Delta is in the community, do you accept that interstate travel at Christmas could be unlikely this year?
Simon Birmingham: Look, I'm not going to get that far ahead. I'm very hopeful-.
Peter Stefanovic: It's not that far away.
Simon Birmingham: It's not. But with the rate of growth we're seeing in the vaccine program, with the additional millions of doses coming in each and every week and month that I outlined before with the additional distribution points, that will come with those extra doses which allow us to bring more pharmacies on board and support more hubs occurring across the country, I think Australia can absolutely hit some very high rates of vaccination by Christmas that enable us to as a country, provide greater opportunities for movement, to reunite families and hopefully enjoy those Christmas holidays.
Peter Stefanovic: Okay. Simon Birmingham, thanks for your time.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Pete. My Pleasure.