Coronavirus Vaccines

Australia delays vaccine roll-out to study how others cope with jab

Australia wants to understand how the vaccine has been working in other parts of the world.
Australia wants to understand how the vaccine has been working in other parts of the world.PHOTO: AFP

Most countries with access to Covid-19 vaccines have been rolling them out as quickly as possible, but Australia has taken a different approach and is delaying vaccinations for as long as it can.

Despite securing access to massive stocks, Australia has decided to take a watch-and-wait approach and wants to understand how the vaccine has been working in other parts of the world before beginning its immunisations.

The federal government plans to start its mass immunisation campaign in mid-or late-February. It will initially vaccinate front-line health workers, staff at quarantine facilities and other workers who deal with international arrivals, and people living in aged care homes or who have a disability.

The aim is to vaccinate four million of Australia's 25 million residents by the end of March, and the entire population by October.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday that the government was taking its time with the roll-out and - unlike countries in the grip of serious outbreaks - had no need to risk cutting corners.

"We have got a range of countries overseas that have already started vaccination programmes," he told 2GB Radio. "There is a real desperation to the programme over there, that is not the case here. It means that we can protect Australians with this vaccine and make sure we get it right, learn from that."

The government decided to hold off its roll-out because of low Covid-19 case numbers, a comprehensive testing programme and a strict - though not fail-safe - quarantine system.

Australia recorded nine new cases on Wednesday, but all involved international arrivals. In the past seven days, the country has recorded 10 locally transmitted cases, including seven in New South Wales and three in Queensland. In total, Australia has recorded 28,739 cases and 909 deaths.

But some medical experts have criticised Australia's approach, saying that vaccinations should be conducted sooner to prevent further outbreaks, particularly as more contagious strains of the virus emerge around the world.

Adjunct Professor Bill Bowtell of the University of New South Wales, a health policy consultant, said the vaccines had been shown to be safe.

"We have got to start straight away. We can't delay this," he told The New Daily news website.

"The global situation, the gravity of what is going on, doesn't allow us to wait. The vaccines have got to get the tick, but once they do, they have to go out."

The government is sticking to its plan for a February roll-out, though it had initially planned to wait until March.

A separate debate has broken out over which vaccine to use.

Australia has secured 53.8 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and 10 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Some experts have raised concerns about Australia's reliance on AstraZeneca's vaccine, saying that it is less effective than those developed by Pfizer and Moderna, and will not achieve herd immunity. The AstraZeneca vaccine was shown to provide 62 per cent or 90 per cent protection, depending on the dosage. The Pfizer vaccine had 95 per cent efficacy.

Infectious diseases expert Michelle Ananda-Rajah of Monash University said Australia should try to secure more doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

"We need to pivot our strategy," she told ABC News. "It is really about just ensuring that we provide for Australians the best possible vaccine… (AstraZeneca's vaccine) is just not going to confer herd immunity at a population level. We just don't believe that, based on our current data."

Australia plans to initially use its Pfizer doses to vaccinate vulnerable members of the population, and use the AstraZeneca vaccine - which is being made locally - for the bulk of the population.

The government has defended its use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, saying it has shown to be 100 per cent effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalisation and deaths.

Australia's Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said it was more important to proceed with vaccines that were readily available and had more than 50 per cent efficacy than to wait for others that may have higher efficacy rates.

"The AstraZeneca (vaccine) is here, we don't need to queue for that," he told reporters earlier this month.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2021, with the headline 'Australia delays vaccine roll-out to study how others cope with jab'. Subscribe