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Wednesday, 9 September 2009
Page: 9191

Mr SIMPKINS (12:31 PM) —I rise to speak on the National Health Security Amendment Bill 2009. I do so because I believe very much in the best possible security for the health of Australians, especially with regard to any biological agents that could be used as weapons in the future. This bill’s intent is to amend the National Health Security Act 2007 in order to widen the controls over the security of biological agents, known as security-sensitive biological agents, or SSBAs. The National Health Security Act was introduced to the parliament by the coalition. It was passed in 2007. That act was designed to provide a national system of public health surveillance in order to enhance the capacity of the Commonwealth and the states and territories to identify and respond to public health events of national significance. That included the occurrence of certain communicable diseases as well as certain releases of chemical, biological or radiological agents, or the occurrence of public health risks or overseas mass casualties. Specifically, the act and the lengthy consultations that preceded it originated from the 2002 anthrax attacks in the USA. It was through that act that the National Notifiable Disease List was established. That was to comprise diseases that would constitute a public health risk if they broke out. The federal minister must consult with the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer and each state or territory health minister regarding that list.

It is worthwhile to reflect on the security-sensitive biological agents that have been included in tier 1, under part 3 of the National Health Security Act 2007. As I understand it, the agents in tier 1 are abrin; Bacillus anthracis; botulinum toxin; Ebola virus; foot-and-mouth disease virus; highly pathogenic influenza virus, infecting humans; Marburg virus; ricin; rinderpest virus; SARS coronavirus; variola virus, also known as smallpox; and Yersinia pestis, the plague. Most of those are familiar to us here in Australia because they are all extremely dangerous and have been reported at various times in the media. By way of example, Ebola virus first emerged in 1976 in Zaire and Sudan. In Zaire the mortality rate for that outbreak was around 90 per cent. Transmission occurs when bodily fluids are transferred. In Africa the virus spreads quickly within communities because of mortuary rituals and hygiene issues. However, due to the difficulty of moving around Africa, the Ebola virus does not spread easily beyond the initial communities affected. Sadly, most people die before they can come in contact with other communities.

Another example is the SARS coronavirus, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, which between November 2002 and July 2003 spread from Guangdong Province in China to 37 other countries. It was described as being near pandemic, killing almost 800 of the more than 8,000 people who contracted SARS. Unlike the Ebola virus, which affects everyone who comes into contact with the bodily fluids of the infected and which has a common morbidity rate of between 50 and 90 per cent, 50 per cent of those who died from SARS were actually over 65 years old, while just one per cent of the deaths were of those under 25 years of age.

Finally I will speak of the variola virus, also known as smallpox. It was estimated that in the 20th century as many as 300 million to 500 million people lost their lives to the disease. However, in December 1979 the World Health Organisation declared that the smallpox virus had been eradicated through successful and long-term vaccination programs. It remains the only human infectious disease that has been completely eliminated, and that is a testament to the efforts of medicine and science. Nevertheless, given the history and deaths involved with smallpox, vaccinations continue and some places in the world appropriately keep watch for its re-emergence.

It is because of the risk of transmission and the potency of these agents that the National Health Security Act 2007 was deemed necessary, following the review of hazardous biological materials by the Council of Australian Governments in April 2007. Following on from the act and the regulations, security-sensitive biological agent standards were developed and released last year. The standards of handling security-sensitive biological agents are, of course, of vital importance because, as we have seen in the past, there have been examples of laboratory errors that allowed unplanned exposures to these agents.

In 1979 in the USSR city of Sverdlovsk, now Yekaterinburg, what has now been described as an accidental release of anthrax infected 94 people, with 68 dying. In 1978 the last person to die of smallpox was a medical photographer who contracted the disease at the University of Birmingham’s medical school. In March this year in Germany a female scientist accidentally pricked her finger with a needle used to inject Ebola into mice. She was given an experimental drug, and the incubation period passed, luckily, without her showing any symptoms, although it is uncertain as to whether she actually contracted the Ebola virus in the first place. What these and many other incidents show is that scrutiny of handling procedures and scrutiny of research or storage facilities is critical to ensure that these agents are contained safely whilst also recognising the need to conduct research into vaccines and better understanding the threat involved.

Within that context, I will now turn specifically to the National Health Security Amendment Bill 2009. The bill is meant to change three points in the current legislation: firstly, to empower the ministers to suspend regulations to deal with an emergency health threat; secondly, to extend current regulations to suspected SSBA, if required; and thirdly, to provide search and seizure powers for inspectors. With regard to the first point of empowering the minister to suspend regulatory obligations of the National Health Security Act 2007, this amendment is needed in order to provide an appropriate and immediate response to an emergency disease situation. This change will permit the minister to make a legislative instrument if there is a threat involving a security-sensitive biological agent that would impact upon the health or safety of people, the economy or the environment, where that legislative instrument would help in the reduction of that threat. The amendment would also allow the instrument to be varied or withdrawn immediately if required.

The second main point of the amendments is to allow control to be placed upon agents that are suspected of being security-sensitive biological agents. This change will bring in mandatory reporting, testing to confirm the agent and destruction requirements by the laboratories that deal with the suspected security-sensitive biological agent. The fines involved for failing to conform or failing to destroy suspected agents will be similar to those for not acting on known agents.

The final main point of these amendments is to allow coercive and extensive powers for inspectors under the National Health Security Act. Currently they have powers under the Gene Technology Act 2000 to obtain search and seizure warrants, but this amendment will allow similar powers under the National Health Security Act. It will allow inspectors to seize material and be assisted by other persons such as the police, all the time using necessary and reasonable force. It will also allow them to ask questions and ask for the production of documents, which will involve those being asked to answer and produce those documents. Warrants regarding the investigation of suspected offences can be obtained over the telephone or via fax from a magistrate in times of critical circumstances.

Considering the risks and threats posed by security-sensitive biological agents, I certainly appreciate the need for this bill and I support it. The reality is that Australia is at some risk from all tier 1 listed agents and we must constantly review the threat and our procedures. I say ‘some risk’ because, when you examine the aspects of each of the listed agents with regard to exposure, modes of infection, treatment and prevention as well as biological warfare or terrorist applications, they all have limitations. Nevertheless, by being ever vigilant and strengthened by a strong inspection and compliance regime, we can further reduce the threat levels.

This is all the more necessary because, as we know through the events of recent history, in the same time frame in which we seek to defeat these biological and toxic threats through science and medicine, somewhere around the world there are terrorists who are looking to use these agents to their own advantage. I say again that we will always be in need of maximum vigilance and I am pleased to support this bill, as I will any future bill that supports the safety and health of this nation and its people.