Shortcuts / 22 April 2021

Australia’s Vaccine Rollout

The rollout of Australia’s coronavirus vaccination program has had a couple of bumps in the road… There have been challenges with supply and the program’s logistics, along with safety issues to address. In this week’s episode of Squiz Shortcuts, we take you through Australia’s vaccine deals, what’s behind the issues that have arisen, and where things are at with the program to get Australians vaccinated.

So what’s the coronavirus thingy?
Geez, you’re lol funny today…

So remind me why vaccination is so important…
Well, they may not be enough on their own to end the pandemic. Public health experts say they’re the only proven way to reach ‘herd immunity’. That’s when enough of the population is immune, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The only other way to reach herd immunity is to let the virus rip through the population.

Why not do that?
It would see millions of people die who would have been saved if we had slowed the spread of the virus, which is something a vaccine can do.

So Australia’s vaccine program…
The Australia Government made agreements with three vaccine producers to supply 170 million doses of vaccines – Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Novovax.

The Pfizer vaccine arrived first?
Yep, it was pretty much the most sought-after vaccine globally, and Australia has secured 40 million doses. It was also the first to be approved for use by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in January – a big deal because no vaccine has ever been made and approved for use of this type before.

What do you mean?
It’s what’s called an mRNA-type vaccine, and it works by giving the cells the instructions they need to produce viral proteins that trigger an immune response to COVID-19.

So what’s the catch?
It’s tricky to transport and store because it needs very cold temperatures. And it can’t be manufactured here because we don’t have mRNA production capabilities. So the deal relies on imports from Europe. So far, 1.2 million doses have arrived in Australia, and they are being prioritised for older Australians and frontline workers.

And we’ve heard a lot about the AstraZeneca vaccine…
Alright, alright… It was to be the centrepiece of Australia’s vaccination program via 53.8 million doses – 3.8 million of those were to come from Europe, and 50 million made here in Australia by our homegrown vaccine manufacturer CSL.

And it was appealing because?
It’s easier to store and move around than the Pfizer vaccine. And we can make it here.

Fair call. What’s it based on?
It’s what’s called a viral vector vaccine. The way it works is it uses a harmless virus – in this case, it’s a common cold that chimpanzees get – and that delivers a piece of genetic code to trigger the immune response.

A chimp cold, eh?
Ah-choo.

And what’s the Novavax vaccine?
Australia’s got 51 million doses of the Novavax vaccine coming if it clears the approval process later this year. Like the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, Novavax is a 2 shot regime, and it can be stored for up to 3 months at fridge temperature.

Any other vaccine contender?
That’s it for the minute. But Australia will also have access to 25 million vaccine doses through the global COVAX effort.

So Australia started behind other countries with the rollout, yes?
PM Scott Morrison and health officials said because Australia hasn’t had the climbing COVID-19 cases or deaths that many other countries have had, the TGA could put the first cabs off the rank – the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines – through thorough testing.

Haven’t other countries just got on with it?
Countries like the US, the UK and those through Europe are using vaccines on an emergency approval basis. That means they haven’t gone through the usual full assessment – but with third waves of infections in those parts of the world, governments have decided that there’s enough evidence from trials to indicate they’re safe to give them the green light.

On what basis is our vaccine approved?
The TGA granted provisional approval for the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines earlier this year. What that means is the approval is subject to certain strict conditions, like the companies continuing to provide information to the TGA on longer-term efficacy and safety from any ongoing trials.

So when did we get started?
On 22 February. And PM Scott Morrison was one of the first to be vaccinated along with Jane Malysiak, an 84-year-old World War II survivor. She’s the one that did a backwards V for vaccine finger gesture… Whoops.

And, turns out that wasn’t the biggest glitch…
Nope. So, our contracted supply of the Pfizer vaccine and 3.8 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are made in Europe…

Yeah, you told me that…
…So when the European Union announced export controls on vaccines produced within the bloc – and then blocked doses made in Italy – it was a sign of problems to come. To understand the EU’s position – it is in dispute with those companies about the supply of these vaccines locally, just as they face ongoing high numbers of new cases and deaths.

I thought you were going to say blood clots were an issue.
We’re getting there…

Well, get on with it…
Then reports emerged from overseas linking the AstraZeneca vaccine to the development of severe blood clots in a small number of patients. In the UK, where 20 million doses of AstraZeneca had been administered, there were 79 cases of blood clots and 19 deaths resulting from them.

So we banned it?
No. Following advice from Australia’s vaccination expert panel, PM Scott Morrison said the official recommendation was that Aussies aged under 50 years should receive the Pfizer jab over AstraZeneca.

Why draw the line at 50yo?
Contracting COVID can be heaps risky for older Aussies, so the experts said the benefit of having that vaccine far outweighs any of the risks.

And that’s put a big question mark over Australia’s vaccine rollout…
It sure has.

Let me guess, that’s got something to do with the 50 million doses of AstraZeneca?
Yup. With supply issues from Europe, that puts the goal of having all willing Aussies receiving at least one dose of a vaccine by October out of reach.

So what’s the fix?
There’s going to be a focus on getting more people aged over 50yo vaccinated earlier than was anticipated.

And what about the under 50s?
Well, if contracting COVID-19 would be risky for them, they will get vaccinated soon-ish, most probably with the Pfizer vaccine.

But for everyone else?
It might be that they have to wait until the end of the year when more Pfizer doses have arrived, and Novavax is potentially in use to get their shots.

When will we know?
Well, that’s being worked through with the federal, state and territory governments via twice-weekly meetings of the Federal Cabinet.

Any other issues while we’re at it?
Good segue… There’s been a bit of tension between the federal government and state and territories over the delays.

Why’s that?
The government has accused them, particularly Queensland, of hoarding vaccines unnecessarily.

And the states?
Queensland has said that it’s holding those vaccines so that those who have already received their first doses can receive a second in the timeframe required. But the Commonwealth said it was already holding those second doses.

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