Interview with Sharri Markson, Sky News

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: COVID-19 vaccine, Australia-China relationship.
31 January 2021

Sharri Markson: Now, a European move to shore up supplies of both Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines is likely to derail the pace of Australia’s vaccination program. This was a report in The Australian newspaper over the weekend. Australia will now only receive 1.2 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine instead of the 3.8 million it had planned to deliver, and Pfizer has warned 10 million doses that were earmarked for Australia are now at risk. The vaccine had been due to start within weeks, with an initial supply of 80,000 doses. EU export restrictions designed to prioritise Europe first are now threatening global supplies, with wealthy countries fighting over limited vaccine supplies. Federal Trade Minister Dan Tehan joined me earlier to discuss this.

[Excerpt]

Markson: This is a really critical problem. How concerned are you that European Union export controls will threaten our vaccine supply?

Dan Tehan: Well, we’ve made representations to the European Union on this, they’ve given us assurances that it won’t disrupt supplies but we’ll continue to work with them and make sure we’re doing everything we can to ensure that the flow of vaccines to Australia is as planned. But, you have to remember that as part of all the planning that we’ve been doing it has been ensuring that we’ve got multiple sources of the vaccine, including, importantly, domestic production here in Australia. So, we are very confident that the vaccine rollout will kick off in late February, as we’ve said all along.

Markson: There was evidence given to a Senate Committee just last week where both AstraZeneca and Pfizer had already downgraded the doses that they expected to deliver to Australia. AstraZeneca initially said it would deliver 3.8 million doses. That’s been downgraded to 1.2 million. So, do you expect that the Federal Government’s promise that 4 million Australians would be vaccinated by March will no longer happen?

Tehan: Look, we think that our vaccine rollout will take place as it’s been planned and we’ve always put in place contingencies if something happened to one particular vaccine. So we’re very confident that our vaccine rollout will take place as planned and we’ll continue to talk with the European Union around the export controls that they’re putting in place to ensure that they provide the most minimal disruption to Australia receiving the vaccine from Europe. But, also, you have to remember that we’ve put in place planning to ensure that the other sources of the vaccine will continue to flow, including the domestic production here. So, we’re confident that our vaccine rollout will take place as planned, and the levels of doses that we’re able to give is still very much on track.

Markson: But, just in terms of the promise to get four million Australians vaccinated by March, how can that actually happen if, by the end of February, the only vaccine doses we will have in this country are the 80,000 a week from Pfizer?

Tehan: Well, obviously, we’ve put in place contingencies. We’ve always known that there was the potential for disruptions – whether it be in the logistic supply chain or through problems with manufacturing – and we’re confident that we’ll be able to deliver the rollout. Now, if anything changes that, of course, will be updated. One of the key things that we’ve done throughout this pandemic is ensure that everything we’ve done has been consistent with the advice that we’re getting through – from – the medical experts. We set up a panel of medical experts to advise us on the vaccine rollout, and that’s why we’ve got multiple vaccines which will be rolled out at the same time, because that’s what the experts said was the best way to go …

Markson: … Well, what are the contingency plans? Because, at this point, there’s only 80,000 vaccines a week coming in in late February, and the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been downgraded to 1.2 million doses, hasn’t been approved by the TGA yet.

Tehan: So, what we’ve done is we’ve taken the advice from the medical experts and they’ve said all along that they expect that the TGA will be able to provide us that advice in time. We’ve been very clear that we were going to take our time and make sure we had a very considered approach with regards to ensuring that the vaccines would do the job that they’re required to do and also that they were safe for use. And, we’ve, you know, made it very clear that we weren’t going to rush that – and we’ve taken our time, so we’re confident we’ll get the approvals in time, and the plan for the vaccine rollout is very much on track.

Markson: The WA CHO overnight has warned of vaccine nationalism, saying that it could lead to a protracted recovery. How concerned are you and the Government about this?

Tehan: Well, we want to make sure that there – we don’t see vaccine nationalism. One of the things that countries committed to throughout the pandemic was to make sure that when it came to the rollout of the vaccine that we’d see it made widely available right across the globe. We will continue to push for this. There has been moves at the World Trade Organization in the last six to nine months to ensure that there are policies in place that would prevent this from happening. So, we’ll continue to push for those policies to remain in place and we’ll also be making representations where we see signs of vaccine nationalism occurring. It’s incredibly important for everyone that there is a proper global rollout of the vaccine. The only way, in the end, that we’ll be able to successfully deal with the pandemic is by having a consistent approach right across the globe to the rollout of the vaccine.

Markson: Yeah. Look, I realise, Minister, that you were not Trade Minister at the time. However, you are now. Evidence has just emerged from Pfizer’s Australia Director of Market Access Louise Graham. She told a Senate Committee just a couple of days ago that the company, that Pfizer contacted the Government in June to discuss the vaccine rollout in Australia, and she said prior to that, the Australian Government had not made contact with Pfizer. By the time the Australian Government reached an initial agreement with Pfizer, which took a couple of months, and that was in November, already 34 countries had already signed a deal to secure one billion doses of the vaccine. Labor has used this evidence to say that the Australian Government was very slow, was behind the ball in securing vaccine doses for Australia, and that we’re effectively at the back of the queue – 61 countries will have started their vaccine rollout before Australia. Why did this happen?

Tehan: Well, I think if you look around the world – and one of the things that’s really struck me since I’ve become Trade Minister, where you get to see the cables of what’s happening with the pandemic globally – is the extraordinary job we’ve done here in managing the virus. I think we stand alone with probably a handful of other countries as to how we have managed the pandemic. Part of our response has always been to have a very careful plan, based on medical expert advice, as to how we roll out the vaccine. Now, we’ve made sure that we have to get TGA approval, and we’ve said to the TGA what we want is to make sure that the vaccine is safe and that we’ve got a rollout plan that we know will work – and nothing has changed with that regard. We’ve done an extraordinary job in making sure that we’ve got access to the vaccine, including working with CSL to make sure that we can manufacture the vaccine here in Australia, and we’re very confident that the rollout plan that we’ve got for the vaccine will take place, and take place in a way which will continue to keep Australians safe.

Markson: Minister, I would like to ask you, on another topic, about China. Trade Minister, your elevation to the role of Trade Minister, comes at such a critical time for our international relations with China. In 2020, there were already so many tariffs and various trade bans. It looks like this will only escalate in 2021. What is your plan to thaw these tensions with China?

Tehan: Well, I’ve said that my approach, and the Government’s approach, to our trade policy will be based on three things. First of all, a very proactive approach – so we’re going to be pursuing market opportunities in the European Union, which is one of the world’s biggest markets; with the United Kingdom; we’re going to look to try and reboot our approach to India; we’re also going to look at opportunities with Vietnam; continued opportunities with Japan; we’ve got new opportunities with a new administration in the United States, so we’ll be pursuing opportunities with the Biden administration; we want to see APEC reboot after the pandemic, so we’ll be working cooperatively with New Zealand on that; and then the World Trade Organization needs major reform …

Markson: … So, diversify is the main plan?

Tehan: Well, we should always be diversifying. As we know, when we trade commodity prices go up and down, markets come and go – so we’ve got to make sure, always, that we’re diversifying. We’ve got to be very proactive. We’ve also got to be very principled. Where we do enter into agreements, we’ve got to make sure that they are truly liberalising, that we do see trade and investment liberalisation from entering into those agreements, and not only that, that we know, through those partnerships, that people will adhere to the terms and conditions of what we sign up to. So, that will also be one of the key things that we will pursue and then, also, we’re going to be patient. So, as we know, when it comes to India, we want to be proactive, but we are going to have to be patient with the way we deal with India. And, when it comes to China, I’ve written to my counterpart – he was appointed within about 24 or 48 hours of me – I’ve written a very comprehensive letter to him pointing out the ways that we can have constructive engagement and I’m now just going to patiently wait for that reply. But, in the meantime, going to pursue all the wonderful opportunities there are out there for us to pursue as a trading nation.

Markson: Thank you so much, Minister. Really appreciate your time today.

Tehan: Pleasure, Sharri.

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