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Health minister steps in, ANSTO apologises after fault detected at Lucas Heights facility

Federal health minister Greg Hunt says the government will take action to ensure the continuation of diagnostic services following an equipment malfunction at ANSTO Lucas Heights. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen
Federal health minister Greg Hunt says the government will take action to ensure the continuation of diagnostic services following an equipment malfunction at ANSTO Lucas Heights. Picture: Alex Ellinghausen

The federal government has confirmed it will take action to support patients following nuclear medicine scan shortages, following an equipment failure at ANSTO, Lucas Heights.

It released a statement on Friday afternoon to say it was working proactively to find solutions to support patients following an unexpected shortage of nuclear medicine scans in hospitals and medical centres.

"[It] means supplies of Technetium-99m (TC-99m) are limited," health minister Greg Hunt said.

"I am advised that ANSTO has been able to secure partial supply of Mo-99 from the South African producer, NTP. I understand that this will partially cover Australian requirements over the next three weeks.

"It is expected that the supply will be quite limited in the week commencing September 16, and increase incrementally over the subsequent weeks."

The radioisotope is mainly used for selective imaging of organs and soft tissues such as the lungs, bone, brain, liver and kidneys, enabling an effective diagnosis.

"My key focus is ensuring the continuation of diagnostic procedures, and any impact on services, especially for patients living with cancer, is minimised," minister Hunt said.

"I have been briefed by the Chief Medical Officer and the Department of Health, which is thoroughly exploring alternative diagnostic methods with the relevant clinical experts.

"My department is working closely with state and territory health departments to minimise the impact of the shortage, and with ANSTO's Nuclear Medicine Working Group.

"I have instructed the department to include temporary provisions under the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) to allow access to relevant PET services to ensure continuity of care for patients."

He says the department will work with key stakeholders to ensure that the items are appropriately structured and targeted.

"It is important that prioritisation of the most urgent cases occurs and I have been assured that ANSTO and the Nuclear Medicine Working Group are ensuring supply is distributed to patients around the country as equitably as possible," he said.

"I urge patients to talk to their health provider if they have any concerns about their particular circumstances."

Australia's Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation facility at Lucas Heights.

Australia's Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation facility at Lucas Heights.

EARLIER

ANSTO confirmed on Friday that teams were working to rectify a malfunction at its Lucas Heights facility, and has apologised for those impacted.

Its Nuclear Medicine (ANM) facility was rendered inoperable as a result of a plant malfunction. The facility provides crucial cancer scanning material for the Australian market.

On Friday a spokesman said ANSTO had four teams working in parallel to progress options to rectify the issue, and a fifth was in daily contact with international partners to source medicine from overseas.

"In terms of progress, we are currently removing irradiated material from inside what is known as a dissolution cell. The valve that is causing the problem is at the top of this cell," he said.

"This needs to be done safely and methodically, and in close consultation with the nuclear regulator, ARPANSA. After removal of the material we can continue works on the repairs to the valve in question.

"ANSTO negotiated limited supply of medicine from international suppliers which will be available from next week for three weeks, and are in the process of negotiating more including for over the longer term.

"And we are working with federal authorities, the states and the nuclear medicine community to ensure that the medicine we obtain can make it into clinical settings as soon as it is cleared to do so.

"We thank the nuclear medicine community, and in particular the Nuclear Medicine Working Group, who are helping ensure that the reduced amount of nuclear medicine gets to areas needed most.

"And we apologise to everyone who has been impacted by this issue, and assure them there are many people working across the country and the world to minimise that impact."

PREVIOUS

The Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union has expressed concern for workers' safety at Australia's Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

The newly commissioned ANSTO Nuclear Medicine (ANM) facility has been rendered inoperable as a result of a plant malfunction.

The facility provides vital diagnostic materials for cancer scanning for the entire domestic Australian market.

ANSTO stopped manufacturing molybdenum-99, used to produce technetium-99m, last Friday after a valve fault was found in its nuclear medicine facility.

As a result of this malfunction, Australia's domestic supply of molybdenum 99 is running short, the union stated. AMWU NSW State Secretary, Steve Murphy, says "our first priority is our members' safety.

"We are working with our members and Health and Safety Representatives to ensure they can continue their vital work of supplying life saving medicines to the Australian Public," he said.

"This engineering failure could have easily been avoided. The federal government must explain why budgetary policy around funding offsets applies to a facility such as ANSTO."

ANSTO has emphasised that there are no safety implications, and supply of the medicine it had already made was distributed on Monday to Australian hospitals and nuclear medicine clinics.

A spokesman for ANSTO says after working with its international partners, it can supply a limited amount of the nuclear medicine known as molybdenum-99 from next week.

"We expect that the amounts from overseas will gradually increase over the next three weeks, starting with 10 per cent of normal supply from next week and working up to around a third of normal supply by early next month. We will have more information at that point," he said.

"ANSTO will continue to work with the Nuclear Medicine Working Group (NMWG) to assign the supplies of nuclear medicine in a way that minimises impact on Australian patients.

"Both investigations and work are continuing to safely progress mechanical repairs within ANSTO's ANM facility."

Earlier ANSTO stated it had temporarily ceased manufacture of the nuclear medicine, after a fault was detected with a valve last Friday.

"ANSTO is working with people who designed and constructed the nuclear medicine facility to fully understand the cause of the mechanical defect, and safely rectify the issue." he said.

"Manufacturing will resume after the fault is safely and properly rectified."

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