Interview – 2GB Afternoons with Deborah Knight

Deborah Knight
COVID-19 vaccine, border restrictions

Deborah Knight: Karen Andrews is the Minister for Science and Industry, she’s on the line for us now. Minister, thanks for joining us.

Karen Andrews: It’s a pleasure, Deb.

Deborah Knight: An exciting development, but it’s still not quite set in stone, is it? It’s still a Letter of Intent. Is it a fait accompli? Or is it a possibility that it may not happen?

Karen Andrews: Look, it’s a very strong and a very exciting development, and one that I think holds quite a lot of promise for us here in Australia. But we are still some way from having a vaccine ready to start manufacturing. But what I can say to the Australian people is that we are doing all we can to make sure that when a vaccine becomes available, we will be able to manufacture it here in Australia. So the Letter of Intent with AstraZeneca is incredibly important. We will continue to work closely with CSL and with any other businesses and manufacturers here in Australia to make sure that we're in the best possible position to manufacture that vaccine right here in Australia.

Deborah Knight: And why are you so excited about this Oxford vaccine in particular?

Karen Andrews: Okay. So the Oxford vaccine is one of the most advanced and promising in the world, it's still going through testing, through their Phase 3 testing which is where they look at a population of between about 30,000 to 50,000 people - so that is still happening. But it is well advanced and it shows a lot of promise. Now there are other vaccines that are being tested - there's the University of Queensland which is also very promising. At this point in time the AstraZeneca one, the Oxford University one is the one that is leading at the moment, but it is still comparatively early days.

Deborah Knight: And what about the Russian vaccine? They were claiming it's done and dusted - the Sputnik 5.

Karen Andrews: Well it may well turn out to be a vaccine that has lots of promise, but I'm very committed to making sure that we go through more of the right regulatory processes here in Australia - as does the Prime Minister, as does the Health Minister - that we do that, and that means that we're looking at the Phase 3 trials where it's a very broad population.

Deborah Knight: And you're saying that you‘ll secure enough doses for every Australian, it will be free to all Australians. Will it be mandatory?

Karen Andrews: Look, the Prime Minister's actually dealt with that issue this morning, and he's on the record now as saying that we will make this as mandatory as possible. 

Deborah Knight: But what does that mean? 

Karen Andrews: That basically there will be medical exemptions that will be considered. But the Prime Minister's made it clear that we are looking at it being a mandatory vaccine.

Deborah Knight: So if people choose not to have the vaccine will there be penalties in place?

Karen Andrews: Look, we're not at that stage at this point in time, and unfortunately we don't have the vaccine in place just yet, and there's lots of parts to that scenario. So we are working to make sure that we can get a vaccine, and that we can manufacture the vaccine here in Australia. We will look at other issues in due course, over the next few months, in particular. But basically this is a virus that has had an enormous impact on the Australian economy, as well clearly as the global economy, and we are looking at taking the strongest action that we possibly can to protect Australians.

Deborah Knight: Because the anti-vaxers - they're already in a lather over this. As they like to do on social media, they're getting all worked up and lots of people are saying, were commenting on this on Facebook - one of them saying, you know where you can stick that vaccine ScoMo, give it to your squad but don't dare come near me or my family with that poison. I mean, they're already active and, you know, bringing together the troops as it were to try to counter any potential vaccine. God knows why they would want to, but the anti-vaxers, they’re out in force.

Karen Andrews: Well, look I'm sure that the anti-vaxers will continue to lather up and do all that they can to, quite frankly, spread misinformation, and I have no time for that. But it does mean that, as a government, we have to make sure the right information is getting out there. So I understand people’s different opinions, but, you know, we are very strong on this and the anti-vaxers can take their own course. But I'm urging people, if you want the right advice look at that from state, and territory, and Federal Government health websites.

Deborah Knight: And we need to ensure that we can make it here in Australia, don't we? Is CSL definitely on board with that? 

Karen Andrews: Look, CSL is leading in terms of their capacity and their capability to manufacture vaccines. So they manufacture the vaccine for flu here in Australia already. So, it depends on what form the vaccine is actually going to take, but we're working very closely with CSL. They're actually working very closely with the University of Queensland, but they’re certainly well across the Oxford University requirements for their vaccine. CSIRO is also working very closely with me, and with AstraZeneca, and with CSL. I'm confident that we will have the manufacturing here capacity here in Australia, but I'm not going to stop until we've actually got it here.

Deborah Knight: Yeah. Because that's the thing isn't it? That a lot of our manufacturing ability’s been wound back over the years and we're finding that even though we were sure we can produce and make things here in Australia we've had to wrap things up and quite significantly. So are you confident we would be able to manufacture enough of the vaccines, the amount that we need here in Australia?

Karen Andrews: I'm confident that we will be able to. From a standing start now, I'm not convinced that we have the capacity to do it right now and that's why we're working on building that capacity. It will be ready in time.

Deborah Knight: Now, I want to ask you also about the Queensland border closure as well. You represent the Queensland seat of McPherson, right on the border with New South Wales. There's lots of disquiet, lots of anger, lots of frustration from people on those border towns, in those border areas about the fact that the shutdown, the lockdown isn't working. People aren't being able to get access to essential medical care, they're not able to go to work, to go to school, and, you know, cases and stories of just ridiculous notions where they- it just makes sense to- a short drive away but they're having to fly all the way to Sydney instead because Queensland won't let them in. What are residents and business owners in your electorate telling you?

Karen Andrews: Well they’re pretty angry, and it's having a devastating impact on families and on businesses here. It's having an impact on people's mental health, people are concerned that they're not going to be able to access the medical treatment that they need, that they're going to be separated from loved ones. And it's not clear to many of them when and if this is ever going to be resolved.

Deborah Knight: Well, we've heard from the Queensland Premier again today Annastacia Palaszczuk talking tough, saying effectively, look, we're not going to, we're not going to budge here. We’ll ensure that the medical advice from the chief medical officer is what stands. But are you confident the Prime Minister, when he's written this letter to the leaders saying, sort this out, are you confident it will be sorted out?

Karen Andrews: Look, at this stage I think we can all hope that it's going to be taken seriously by state and territory first ministers. But what we have to focus on is not how quickly we can shut things down, but how we can keep them open. How can we maintain a lifestyle and a work environment? And at the moment the answer cannot be, the answer cannot be that we shut everything down at the first sign of a threat.

Deborah Knight: Because it's just ridiculous as it stands, I mean this story in The Courier Mail today about the newsagent in Currumbin Waters who had to travel 1600ks by air and road just to get his shop open because he lives in Mullumbimby in New South Wales, just outside that border bubble. And I mean you know, Currumbin Waters, it’s 60ks from Mullumbimby - it's ridiculous.

Karen Andrews: Yes and look I understand that some people- there are some people that don't live in a tourism destination, and they're not affected or they believe that they're not affected by this, who are saying, yeah, keep it all shut and look after our health. But there's, you know, there's mental health aspects - how are people going to continue to support themselves? How are people going to cross borders to get the medical assistance that they need? How do we make this easier rather than constantly making it harder?

Deborah Knight: Yeah. Just a question on the text line before I let you go, from Paul. He's asking, will the vaccine be available to our neighbours in the Pacific Islands as well?

Karen Andrews: So, I've been very clear that we will be part of a global response. So as much as we possibly can, yes, we will be looking to support our closest neighbours but also to feed into the global response. To that, the first stage of that is clearly having a vaccine, and the second part is making sure that we have the capacity and the capability to manufacture that vaccine here in Australia. 

Deborah Knight: So, we could supply New Zealand potentially, and the Pacific Islands?

Karen Andrews: Look, I wouldn’t want to put any, any limits or to make any grand statements. I mean, we're looking at increasing our manufacturing capacity here, and we will certainly be doing all we can to support others.

Deborah Knight: Well, it a good deal that was been inked today, and we thank you for joining us. 

Karen Andrews: It's a pleasure, take care. 

Deborah Knight: Karen Andrews there, the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology.