The federal government has been heavily involved in the international scramble to secure vital supplies of face masks, surgical gowns and other vital medical supplies, paying "premium prices" to land contracts.
Chief medical officer Brendan Murphy told a Senate committee that a large task force involving almost 100 officials from Health department and the Department of Industry had been "working tirelessly" since late January to procure medical supplies, under a clear instruction from the government that money was no object.
"We, like every other country, have been scouring the world," Professor Murphy said.
"There have been some people making fairly outrageous price demands, and we have certainly been paying premium prices."
The international marketplace for masks, ventilators, gowns, goggles and other vital medical supplies has been described as a 'Wild West', with reports of vastly inflated prices, diverted shipments and demands for full upfront payment before orders are filled.
Professor Murphy said the government had invested "billions of dollars" on procurement.
"Essentially, the message from government ... has been, 'Spend what you need to make Australia safe'," he said.
The chief medical officer said one of the challenges had been that one of the world's biggest centres for the production of personal protective equipment was Wuhan, the source of the outbreak, which has been under severe lockdown for much of the past three months.
Despite the challenges, Health Minister Greg Hunt said last week the country has secured shipments of 60 million masks and expects a further 100 million to land in the next six weeks as the government rushes to replenish and expand the national medical stockpile.
Adequate supplies of personal protective equipment are considered essential not only for hospital workers caring for COVID-19 patients, but also for those conducting virus tests and to enable other essential services such as elective surgery and dentistry to recommence.
When the pandemic struck the stockpile, a strategic reserve of medical supplies and antiviral drugs, held 15.6 million top line P2/N95 respirators and nine million surgical masks, along with antibiotics, immunoglobulin products and antidotes.
But it did not hold supplies of gloves, gowns and other personal protective equipment.
Around 3.5 million masks were distributed during the bushfire emergency but that was halted once the virus threat began to emerge.
Acting health department secretary Caroline Edwards told the Senate committee that while Australia had the capacity to produce gowns, gloves and other supplies, its ability to produce masks was initially limited.
Ms Edwards told the committee the Industry Department had been working with Australian manufacturers to significantly increase local production of face masks and was aiming to ensure the stockpile had PPE supplies "for the next six-plus months".
Professor Murphy said that despite the heavy pressure on supplies, the country has never run out.
"We have not been in a position ... where there have been critical shortages," he said.
"There have been concerns at times; we've gone low. [But] at no stage have we ever been in a position where I have felt that any safety has been compromised by a lack of PPE."
The country's intensive care capacity has reached close to 2400 beds, and Ms Edwards said efforts to secure ventilators locally and abroad, including upgraded domestic production capacity, meant the country would be able to support more than 7500 ICU beds if needed.
Professor Murphy said that at this stage that appeared unlikely.
"Fortunately, the peak we've had was only 90 people in ICU and only, I think, about 50 ventilated with COVID-19, and that's dropping now, which is wonderful," the chief medical officer said.
"We have no intention of going near 7000, but we are prepared if this outbreak, in a second wave, gets out of control and we end up in our worst-case position."
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