16 August 2020

CHRIS BOWEN, SHADOW MINISTER FOR HEALTH: Thanks for coming this afternoon, and of course the first thing to do is to with all Australians, mourn the deaths of those who have lost their lives, in the latest reports sixteen in Victoria and on in New South Wales. And of course we join with everyone in expressing our sympathy to the families and mourning the loss of those lives.

I welcome the announcement this morning from the Minister that he is in negotiations for advanced supply agreements for two varieties of vaccine. Labor has been calling this for weeks. The first government to enter into an advanced supply agreement for a vaccine did so in mid-May and we are now in mid-August. There are twenty such agreements around the world already in place which have accounted for approximately three billion doses of the vaccine. So Australia comes to this very late but of course we welcome the fact that Australia is now catching up. A vaccine does not save lives. Vaccinations save lives and we need, when the vaccine is proven and available, Australians to have access to that vaccine. We need at least sixty per cent of the population to be vaccinated as soon as possible and of course in due course, every Australian to be vaccinated for COVID-19 when that vaccine is available.

So we have said that it's not appropriate that Australia puts all its eggs in one basket with the University of Queensland vaccine, of course we hope that works but we cannot take that risk. The Minister has today said he has signed non disclosure agreements for negotiations with two potential vaccines. As I said, I welcome that as I welcome all positive steps from the Government. But we will always hold the government to account and provide that scrutiny as well and it's fair to say that Australia has acted much more slowly than other governments around the world and we cannot let it be the situation that Australians pay a price for that.

So the Government must ensure we have access to as many vaccines as we need for Australia's population, that we have so in a very timely fashion, that we have so not behind other countries, and that we have the access and manufacturing capacity required. I look forward to further announcements from the Minister and I look forward to him assuring Australians that those requirements, those criteria, will be fulfilled.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Kerrie Yaxley here from Nine, do you think that the Government has been too slow entering these negotiations for vaccine development? Do you think that will actually jeopardise the chances of Australians getting access to the vaccine first?

BOWEN: Great question and that is what the Government has to assure us is not the case. The Government has to show Australians that just because 3 billion doses of the vaccine have already been accounted for, through 20 other agreements being entered into by other governments, that Australia is not at the end of the queue. The United States has six of these agreements already, the United Kingdom three, Japan three, Brazil has one, South Korea has one. So other countries have been moving much more quickly, the first agreement was entered into in May. What Greg Hunt has to do and I will welcome it if he can do it, is assure us that we are not at a disadvantage because we are so far behind the rest of the world.

JOURNALIST: Are you satisfied with the amount of funding the Government indicated they would put towards this or do you think there needs to be greater Commonwealth funding for a vaccine or shoring up supplies for a vaccine?

BOWEN: There absolutely should be more Commonwealth funding for a vaccine, I mean five million dollars to the University of Queensland is not enough when you consider that the Government of Queensland is putting in ten million dollars. So the State Government is putting in double what the National Government has done and there are other vaccines under development in Australia with zero government support and funding for COVID-19. Some of those may work. But they will not reach the level we need without government funding and the Government also needs to be putting more into the international efforts, the cooperative international efforts to develop a vaccine. Of course more needs to be done. Just this week on manufacturing, the Government issued a call for information from manufacturers about whether they could help and gave them a few days to respond. I mean, that is very late, very late, very rushed and more could have been done earlier and more still can be done now.

JOURNALIST: Tim Lester from Seven News, could you give us your sense given the work you have done in your portfolio on how close is vaccine may be?

BOWEN: Here I would agree with the Minister here, there is some signs for cautious optimism and I don't think it's realistic to really hope that a vaccine will be available in the next little while, immediate period, but of course we are hoping a vaccine is available in 2021 and certainly the sooner in 2021, the better. There are around 160 vaccines in various stages of clinical trials, we know vaccines have a 96 per cent failure rate so most of those will not come to fruition but a few will. A few will. That is why I am saying we should not put all our eggs in the one basket, we should be managing risks and investing in multiple vaccines and striking multiple agreement so Australia is at the best place to have access to it. But there are some signs for optimism. I share that optimism.

JOURNALIST: The Minister says that Australia is in quote," best one of the best positions of any country in the world" in terms of getting quick access in delivering this vaccine. Is he right because that seems to run directly counter to your argument about not getting, not moving fast enough?

BOWEN: I don't see how the Minister can make that claim when there are 20 agreements already entered into around the world and we are not one of them. No, even today, even with today's indication from the Minister, Australia has no agreement in place. No signatures have been penned on any advanced supply agreement as we speak, on behalf of Australians. That is the case today. I welcome the fact the Government is now indicating they are moving towards that but there are 20 other agreements in place around the world already. The United States has six in place, three billion doses have been accounted for by other governments and we are coming into this now. I really don't know how the Minister can make the claim that Australia is best placed around the world when we have been so far behind the game when it comes to vaccines.

JOURNALIST: We do have two nondisclosure agreements we are told today. They are not agreements with regard to the vaccine, they are agreements not to talk. The Minister though calls them very, very good news. Do you accept that they are in a sense, that they really are a close precursor to a likely deal?

BOWEN: I will certainly acknowledge they are a step forward. And it's a good sign. I certainly do acknowledge that. But it's not an agreement to provide vaccines to Australians and until we have one of those, and potentially more than one, then we are still way behind the rest of the world. So of course I welcome any forward steps. This is a forward step, I am not going to be denying that. But we need positive, clear and detailed agreements entered into, publicised, in place and implemented for Australians and we don't have that as we speak.

JOURNALIST: The Minister talks about now moving into an environment of not one vaccine, but a range of vaccines. Do you accept that what we might be seeing is a situation where there are more targeted vaccines for different sections of the community to properly deal with this or is that overly optimistic?

BOWEN: Well, of course, we hope that there is more than one successful vaccine. And as I said, there's about 160 under clinical trial if four per cent of those work then there will be a small number to choose from. But if we are to have proper immunity, we need at least 60 per cent of Australians having immediate access to that vaccine. And then of course, all Australians having access to that vaccine. We can pretend that you know, just a few of us get it or if it's just available to the elderly or healthcare workers, as important as that is and they are important priorities. It's got to be available for all Australians, if we are truly to say we have a vaccine which is making a big difference to our resilience against COVID-19. Is that it? We're all in. Thanks very much.