Interview with Laura Jayes, Sky News – AM Agenda

Laura Jayes
Afghanistan, vaccine, mRNA, lockdowns

LAURA JAYES: That first evacuation flight out of Kabul arrived in Perth very early this morning. It left Dubai with around 90 people on board. The Government is also trying to arrange that landing slot in the capital for a RAAF C17 Transporter. Let's go live to Minister Christian Porter. Minister Porter, thanks so much for your time. Do you know anything else about this flight or the people on board?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I think that the information that you've had publicly is similar to the information that's been provided to cabinet ministers and it's very pleasing that we've managed to get those people out. What I could probably say on behalf of - well for your listeners is that this is going to be a somewhat longer process. I mean, we've got an issue obviously with Australian citizens; we've got visa holders there who were the people largely who were employed or engaged with Australian Government forces in Afghanistan. And of course, as the Prime Minister noted yesterday, we're going to have this problem and issue that's going to be ongoing with respect to people who'll be displaced – and refugees. And we're making arrangements and plans for each of those different groups but it is an increasingly difficult situation in Afghanistan and I think that is obvious to anyone who's been watching the news.

LAURA JAYES: It certainly is. And it's difficult - it's getting more difficult around the airport. There are a number - you know, some (unclear) are hundreds of people that didn't, you know, get through the lead process, they're not eligible for visas. And there's now talk of this being challenged in the federal court here. How difficult will that be? Do you think it has a chance of success?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I'm not quite sure about the particular federal court challenge that you are talking about, but there are obviously citizens and that number of citizens who are registered and so  become known to our officials, so to the Australian Government in Afghanistan has increased dramatically over the last several weeks. At the beginning of August there were only a small number of people who'd registered with the Australian Government so that we knew where they were and who they were and that number has increased, obviously, as this situation has rapidly deteriorated. As you point out, there are people who have applied for visas, most predominantly they’re visas for people who were engaged and employed with the Australian forces and presence in Afghanistan. An overwhelming majority of those have been processed; those that were in train are being processed, I understand that the Minister Alex Hawke, has given interim approval to, so, there's no issue with the processing of those visas. The issue is that the Australian Government, through our forces which were deployed obviously for 20 years in Afghanistan, do not have a presence outside the airport. So whether you are a citizen or you are an interim visa holder or a visa-holder as an employee engaged….Afghanis who helped Australians during that period, the predominant difficulty is that with the deterioration that was as sudden as we've all seen that it was, Australia just doesn't have a presence outside the wire of that airport. So, the difficulty is in people transmitting themselves to the airport through checkpoints that are controlled by the Taliban, as we've all seen. So, the difficulty I don't think I would characterise as legal. I think the difficulty, unfortunately, is logistical and practical. And the Prime Minister, the Government, the Minister for Foreign Affairs is doing everything that we conceivably can inside our power to extract people from that awful situation. But I think that everyone has to understand that the limits of our ability and our powers in that don't extend outside the airport at this point in time and are unlikely to do so.

LAURA JAYES: Yeah, they don't at the moment. And indeed, it seems like even the British and Americans who are outside are being overwhelmed by the sheer number of people trying to get out and the Taliban checkpoints. But look, we will move on. Let's talk about COVID, because our vaccine administering is getting better, we're at the halfway point at 80 per cent. But still, we need to make sure we're not in this position ever again, don't we? How are the mRNA vaccine capabilities looking in Australia? And who would it be?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: So, you're right. So, the vaccination program has definitely picked up enormous pace. So over 70s we've got 55 per cent of people with double vaccinations; over 50s, 41 per cent of people with double vaccinations; for all of the eligible population over 16, about one in two of all of those people have had their first dose, about 28 per cent have had their double dose. And to give everyone listening an idea of how the pace of this has accelerated almost exponentially, you've had about 770,000 doses administered in March, and that same figure of doses administered in July was 4.5 million. So we are moving very rapidly towards that 70 per cent, 80 per cent of double vaccination rates, which represents the next phase of our dealing with COVID. And of course as we reach that sort of marker, people's mind will turn to the next level of debate. One of those debates is about how we cope with any future situations like this that might arise. And a part of that debate is whether we need, and the Government does believe that this is the right thing to do, to establish a presence, manufacturing presence in Australia for the type of mRNA and vaccines, the cutting-edge technology and vaccines that we've seen developed with Pfizer and Moderna. We're still in very detailed discussions with Moderna. We've had an approach to market process where a range of other joint ventures and consortiums, a combination of scientific and manufacturing bodies have come to us with their proposals as to how they might establish that capacity. That is very much a capacity about Australia's future medical needs. I mean, we will have all of the vaccinations we need to reach our markers and go forward without domestic manufacturing capabilities. And realistically, no country in the world has been able to establish outside of Pfizer and Moderna domestic manufacturing capabilities for this …

LAURA JAYES: …so, what is the best-case scenario then, Minister? You're talking about, you know, this is not going to help us in the current crisis. I think we all accept that. But what is the best-case scenario to have this kind of manufacturing onshore? I mean, it looks like we're going to need COVID booster shots for perhaps, you know, now and indefinitely. So, is that the kind of thing that will help us?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: I think that's a large part of it, potentially. One of the difficulties in negotiating either with a Moderna or assessing the proposals from other companies and scientific bodies in Australia is that we're effectively talking about potential manufacture, development and purchase of products that don't yet exist; for needs that we're not yet certain of. So, a COVID booster is likely going to be a big part of that. There's talk about potentially re-platforming seasonal or potentially pandemic-flu vaccines with COVID boosters. But again, that's technology that's actually not here yet. But the mRNA technology will extend out to therapeutics for a whole range of things, including cancer treatments, cardiovascular treatments. So best case scenario is that you have inside a reasonable period of time, a company or body or group with the capacity to develop a suite of mRNA products, keeping in mind that they only exist with two companies in the world now for COVID-19, but a suite of products over the next 10 years that can cope eventually with the needs for boosters for COVID-19. If we have another pathogen or virus of similar proportions, they happen infrequently, but we now know that they do indeed happen in our lifetimes, but also have the capacity to use this technology to broaden the suite of products that are available into other therapeutics for cancer  treatment, for cardiovascular treatment. If you go on the website for Moderna, which anyone can do, they have a range of products in phase-1 clinical trials and the preclinical phase, using mRNA technology for the most remarkable range of treatments from HIV to COVID boosters to influenza to heart disease. So this is clearly going to be the cutting edge of medical technology….us being a part of trying to develop a manufacture capability isn't just or even predominately about COVID. It's about setting up Australia at the forefront of the next wave of medical technology for a range of different diseases, problems that we as Australians face, and will face into the future.

LAURA JAYES: Look, I know you're in Canberra at the moment but there's a lot going on in Perth. It's very different to what we're seeing in New South Wales at the moment, and that is great for them. But we're talking about a Premier now, that is saying even when his state and the country gets to 80 per cent vaccinated, he will still put his state into lockdown. He's not guaranteeing that. What's going on there?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, I think it's natural, as we discussed earlier, that as the vaccination program really takes off, which it is, and we see the point of 70 per cent double vaccinations and then 80 per cent of double vaccinations looming, that the debate quite properly in the public sphere, on your show, in Western Australia, in New South Wales, right across Australia, turns to how we manage our economy, our society, our communities at 70 per cent double vaccination and then 80 per cent double vaccination. I think one of the views that you're seeing put, and I think what was reflected in the agreement at a National Cabinet level, is that to some or other extent, we are going to have to be living with the fact of COVID-19 in the worldwide global human population. I mean the human race has only ever once before in its history, through aggressive vaccination and purposive campaigns of the medical type, been able to eradicate a virus and  then only one strain of the virus….

LAURA JAYES: Was Mark McGowan not aware of that?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: And - and that was chicken pox (correction: small-pox). Now, it would be great if COVID-19 went the way of chicken pox (correction: small-pox), but I think based on the virulency and the spread of it and what we've seen - and all of the expert advice is this thing, this virus, is going to be with us for a very, very long time. So once you get to 80 per cent vaccinations, I mean, it's conceivable, I guess, that in some kind of geographical area, whether it's a state or a territory or an island or whatever it might be, that you can potentially get close to zero COVID. But that would, I think, mean also getting very close to zero travel again for a very, very long time. And that is a debate that…well..

LAURA JAYES: Is that a good idea? I mean, you live in that state, you're allowed to travel to Canberra. No one else is.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, and I think that whilst there's been a degree of support and popularity for border closures, and necessity for them while we've been in the containment phase, at a rational point in time, in future, the debate will turn to - if we are 80 per cent double vaccinated and people are protected to a very large degree - from the health consequences of the spread of COVID-19, COVID-19 cannot be eradicated from the world, it cannot be eradicated from Australia. If there are parts of Australia with low to zero COVID, how do they manage themselves? Now, you won't be able to…

LAURA JAYES: Mr Porter, but your caution this morning tells me that this must be a pretty popular stance in parts of WA. But if they're going to lock down and pursue this zero COVID, even at 80 per cent vaccinated, is Josh Frydenberg right to say, well, you won't get financial support after that? Mark McGowan is even talking about now, about not even giving compassionate exemptions.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well, some people would say that I'm one of the least cautious people on this issue. Like, I think that Australians have a right to travel. I think they have a want to travel. And I think that in the long run, what we have to do is structure an Australian society where people are able to travel. And our federation, state to state, territory to territory, was built upon the simple premise that Australians, whether you're a West Australian or a South Australian or from Victoria, are able to leave their state and return to their state without threat of punishment. And that is a founding principle of the way that - and everything about Australia - our business, our health care, our families, the way that we're organised is based around that principle. And what I'm saying is that the debate will now logically and properly turn to how do you manage travel interstate at a point where you get very high rates of double vaccination. And as you say, there's been a necessity, and I would argue, and I think it's obvious, a popularity around border closures to this point and probably for a couple of months to come. But I think that that debate starts to change somewhat when 80 per cent of a domestic population, whether they're in South Australia or in Western Australia, are double vaccinated and receive very significant protections to their own personal health by virtue of that double vaccination. So, it's sort of a simple - it's a simple matrix…

LAURA JAYES: Well, to that end, do you regret (unclear)… Clive Palmer then on the border issue?

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Well – you know, I was Attorney-General and intervened on a on a High Court case dealing with a constitutional matter like every Attorney-General before me has done and every Attorney-General after me has done. So, I was doing my job then as I'm doing my job now. But I think that you will have a very robust debate about how you manage travel inside Australia when we reach an 80 per cent vaccination rate. And there's been, in essence, an agreement at National Cabinet level as to how that would work. And that agreement, to coarsely summarise it, is that when you get to 80 per cent double vaccinations across Australia, travel becomes freer in between the states and the territories. And if you don't do that, right, then people for years, potentially a decade or longer, don't get to go to weddings or funerals or the births of grandchildren or children. Families are separated, health care becomes difficult, businesses suffer, the tourism industry completely destroyed in any jurisdiction that decides that they're going to try and get close to COVID-zero over the next decade by having zero travel. So it's a logical thing that the debate is going to turn. Now, it hasn't turned there, I don't think, in a substantive way yet, because we're only now at the point where this vaccination rate is absolutely taking off and accelerating. But in the very near future, you're going to have such high rates of vaccination amongst the Australian population that Australians, of course, will be asking themselves, how do we organise ourselves now that we are at these high rates of vaccination?

LAURA JAYES: Okay, well, let's hope that logic remains with National Cabinet and that agreement, we will see. Christian Porter, thanks so much.

CHRISTIAN PORTER: Thank you, cheers Laura.