12 August 2020

FRAN KELLY, HOST: Chris Bowen is the Shadow Health Minister. Chris Bowen welcome back to Breakfast.

CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thank you very much, Fran. Good morning.

KELLY: The Government's seeking input from manufacturers to see if we can mass produce a vaccine here in Australia once an effective candidate is found. Are you confident that we will have that capacity to scale up all the glass vials we need, the packaging distribution, not to mention the manufacturer process itself?

BOWEN: Well, I didn't particularly have a problem with what the Government did yesterday, although it did come very late, we are way into this crisis. And the Government's now just turning its mind to manufacturing of the vaccine, I thought that was extraordinary. There's really a number of reasons we're really behind the game. And we are really behind the game because we're not investing enough in vaccine research. The Federal Government's put in 5 million to the University of Queensland protein vaccine. That's, of course, that's a good thing. But we're putting all their eggs and not very many eggs in one basket. And we all hope that the University of Queensland vaccine is the one that works, but there are, you know, around 160 to 200 vaccines under development of various stages around the world. We know that vaccines have a 96 per cent failure rate at this point. So the chances are that another vaccine might be one of the mRNA vaccines being developed elsewhere in the world with government funding from other governments, are the ones that breakthrough.

The other problem is that we don't have any advanced purchase agreements with any companies whatsoever, so the Government has not negotiated at this point, any access for Australians to any of the vaccines under development around the world. Now other governments have been doing this, there are about 20 deals already in place around the world, they've already bought up a total of around 3 billion doses Fran and we don't have one of those. And you know, the Government is now talking about a discussion with Oxford University, fine, but they are now talking in mid-August about doing what the United Kingdom did in mid May. They first signed their first advanced purchase agreement in mid May. So I'm very concerned for all those reasons that we are way behind the eight ball and would be just unthinkable think a vaccine breaks through and we just can't get access for it in Australia because of these failings.

KELLY: Well, of course, but let's break that down a bit. For start. The Queensland uni is not the only vaccine trial work going on in Australia. There's one in Adelaide, two with the company Vaxine. I think Monash too is looking at something. I mean, there. You know, we don't have unlimited numbers of scientists and labs capable of doing this. We need to focus on the best ones don't we?

BOWEN: Well it's the only one with any Federal Government investment Fran, that's the only one - the University of Queensland one. And indeed even with the University of Queensland investment it's 5 million, the Queensland Government's put in double that 10 million. So it's a pretty small investment. And yes, there are other research projects underway in Australia, of course, but they're not underwritten by Australian investment, government investment. And really they need that weight of government investment if they're going to have the resources to cut through meaningfully. I mean, it's not out of the question that we couldn't develop our own mRNA vaccine as well, Fran, but we're just simply not going to without that level of government commitment. So it comes down to those two things, a lack of government investment in the research, and very concerningly a lack of an advanced purchase agreement. Now I'm not suggesting -

KELLY: We do have that with Oxford now though don't we? We have that?

BOWEN: Well, no, the Government has simply flagged that they're looking at that Fran, they haven't signed anything. As I said, there are 20 such agreements around the world already. I mean the US has signed six, the UK signed three, and Brazil over the last week 48 hours has signed one, South Korea has one, Japan has three, the European Union has two. Australia has zero. I mean, again, these, these were first penned in May, mid May quite early in this crisis. We're now at mid August. And frankly the Government's I have to - I'm sorry to say - has been asleep at the wheel when it comes to vaccines.

KELLY: The Prime Minister said recently he's had, quote, outstanding discussions with countries such as the UK, the US and France about sharing vaccines. Have you spoken to the Government? Have you had a briefing, got assurances that it is doing all it can to secure supply deals?

BOWEN: I've seen their public comments, Fran, but there is there is no, even in the Prime Minister's public comment, there's no signed deal. The Prime Minister held a press conference to say if somebody finds a vaccine, they should share it around the world. Well, I understand that, I respect that but really, a Scott Morrison press conference doesn't make governments around the world and pharmaceutical companies around the world change their policy. They will honour the agreements they've signed, and agreements have been signed by other governments already around 20 of them around the world, 3 billion doses have already been ordered. Now, of course, there's some risk here. And I mean, not every advanced purchase agreement that's been signed will come to fruition. But governments around the world are engaging in risk management. So we can't miss out here. And as I said, it's not just you know, the big guys, US, UK, Germany, I mean comparable countries have been much more advanced than Australia in this, in this endeavour. And I just really worry, of course, we want to see the vaccine developed, we need to be supporting a more global efforts as well, we want to see equitable distribution around the world, including to developing countries, of course, but we also have -

KELLY: Yes because this is already being compared to an arms race. We don't, you know, we want to operate in an altruistic way, as well as obviously securing that we get access to a vaccine.

BOWEN: Correct. And it's much like the PPE battles. I mean, you know, the Government to its credit, you know, fought very hard to get PPE into Australia when we didn't have much going into the crisis, that wasn't done on an altruistic basis around the world. It was done by governments going out and buying products. The vaccine race, likewise is being dominated by these advanced purchase agreements, but -

KELLY: But we won't need them if the UQ one succeeds, will we?

BOWEN: Should we really be putting all our eggs in that basket Fran? I mean, you know, we all hope the UQ one comes through. And of course, we have no guarantee it will be the first one. We have no guarantee that it will work. I mean, it's got to go through massive clinical trials. It has out full support but I wouldn't be betting the house on that vaccine out of all the vaccines around the world being the one that cuts through.

KELLY: Chris Bowen can I ask you about aged care and COVID virus. There's some disturbing reports today in the Australian that some elderly nursing home residents in Victoria are being heavily sedated with medications including morphine to stop them wandering through understaffed facilities and spreading the virus. One doctor is quoted saying the drugs are being prescribed because hospitals are refusing to take in the elderly. Are you aware of this? What is your reaction?

BOWEN: Well I've seen the report Fran, my reaction is the same as it is to basically everything we've seen over the last weeks with the disaster in aged care, which is - this is just gut wrenching for everyone. Everyone with a parent or grandparent in aged care. Every Australian, which I'm sure is all of us who cares about the care of elderly who've contributed so much to a country. I mean, it's just gut wrenching whether it was Merle Mitchell saying 'I regret waking up alive every morning. I wish I didn't' in the aged care facility. So this is just a real if we needed one. I don't think we did need one. But a really stark wake up call for everyone now.

KELLY: But is it more than gut wrenching? I mean, is it ethical to be administering end of life medications to sedate residents one quote in this story as young as 47?

BOWEN: Well, I've seen plenty of things over the last period, which I will question whether they're ethical Fran, I agree without getting into the obviously you and I both have read one report. And there's a long way to go in terms of assessing just what's happened here, but I'd make let me make a few points. Firstly, there have been real failings here. And we should just be honest about that. I mean, the aged care regulator was notified by St Basil's, of course, and didn't tell the rest of the Federal Government. And the Federal Government didn't tell the parliament when they asked about it. I mean, that's a real failing. Four days, the aged regulator knew about it, and from what we can see did nothing. And certainly the Federal Government did nothing because they claimed to Parliament they weren't informed when that just wasn't true. We have seen clear and serious failings here across the board. We know the Federal Government didn't have a plan for aged care and COVID despite knowing that this was our major exposure. I mean, right from the beginning of the crisis way back in January, we knew that this virus impacted on elderly Australians more and the broader point is this Fran, the aged care sector went into this process as a weak one. We've been pointing that out for some time. We called for the Royal Commission into educated the Government resisted it and resisted it. I remember Bill Shorten as Leader of the Opposition, calling for the Royal Commission in Parliament and Ken Wyatt the then Minister saying a Royal Commission would amount to elder abuse, which was utterly offensive as well as inaccurate. And we've been calling this out when, of course, it is a challenge for governments around the world, but our aged care sector, with all the issues of funding and casualisation, and all the other things that we've been pointing to for years, has gone into this crisis as weak. And it means that we've had two thirds of our deaths in Australia from COVID-19 occurring in aged care. I come back to where I started this is gut wrenching, we have to do better in relation to COVID-19. And we have to do better in relation to the care of our elderly going forward. If we don't take this, this crisis and turn it into a sea change in how we deal with aged care. Then we are failing.

KELLY: Chris Bowen. Thanks for joining us.

BOWEN: Thanks, Fran.