Australia Covid-19 vaccine roll-out hits hurdles ahead of ambitious targets

Dr Peter Rischbieth is given the AstraZeneca Covid-19 jab at Murray Bridge Hospital, Adelaide, on March 5, 2021.
Dr Peter Rischbieth is given the AstraZeneca Covid-19 jab at Murray Bridge Hospital, Adelaide, on March 5, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY - Australia has finally started its Covid-19 vaccine roll-out after waiting to see how other countries fared with their inoculations, but the Australian scheme has immediately hit stumbling blocks.

An initial roll-out in old-age homes began badly after a doctor gave an 88-year-old man and 94-year-old woman up to four times the recommended dose of the Pfizer vaccine. It turned out the doctor worked for a private health service that had been hired by the government, raising concerns about the use of private contractors.

The head of the service was stood aside and the doctor was referred to the health regulator, though the two patients reportedly did not have adverse reactions.

Further problems have since arisen, including confusion among various states about how many doses they will receive.

The two most populous states, New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, warned earlier this week that they had received little information from the federal government about the distribution of vaccines.

"We'd like some certainty," said NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Victoria's Health Minister, Mr Martin Foley, urged the federal government "to share more information, to be a bit more transparent".

Australia has been remarkably successful in combating the Covid-19 pandemic, recording a total of 29,021 cases and 909 deaths. The last local transmission was in Victoria on Feb 26, but much of the country has had no local cases for weeks or months.

However, the country's Covid-19 vaccine roll-out has been relatively slow.

Australia began its vaccinations on Feb 22 and plans to initially administer vaccines to about 678,000 quarantine and border workers, frontline healthcare workers and aged care home residents and workers.

The next phase will begin on March 22 and will involve administering doses to 6.14 million people, including people aged 70 and over, other healthcare workers, and the police, military and emergency services. So far, Australia has administered only about 71,000 doses.

The federal government faced a further stumbling block this week as Italy announced it was blocking a shipment to Australia of more than 250,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Italy's foreign ministry said in a statement that Australia was not a vulnerable country and the delivery was being blocked due to the "continuing shortage of vaccines in the EU and in Italy and delays in supplies from AstraZeneca to the EU and Italy".

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday (March 5) insisted that Italy's move would not delay Australia's vaccination targets.

"We'd always anticipated that these sorts of problems could arise," he told reporters.

"(Italy is) in an unbridled crisis situation. That is not the situation in Australia... This particular shipment was not one we'd counted on for the rollout, and so we will continue unabated."

Australia plans to vaccinate 20 million people - out of a population of 25 million - by the end of October, but experts have cast doubt on whether this target is achievable. In the first week of the roll-out, only 33,702 doses were administered - well below the government's minimum target of 60,000.

The president of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Omar Khorshid, said the government was unlikely to vaccinate 20 million before the end of the year.

"I've been saying for a while that October is a pretty tough deadline to meet," he told Channel Nine.

Other health experts have also cast doubt, saying the target could be achieved but will require the use of large venues as vaccination facilities, including sports grounds and convention centres.

"I haven't seen the commonwealth establish the logistics yet to ensure it will vaccinate the general population... at the pace that is required," Dr Stephen Duckett, from the Grattan Institute, told the News.com.au website.

But the government has insisted that it will be able to scale up the number of shots given daily and will meet its targets. It revealed this week that the Australian Defence Force will help with the roll-out in the aged care sector, starting from next week.

So far, the stumbling blocks have been greeted with relatively little public disquiet. This may be partly due to awareness that schemes of such magnitude are bound to run into problems, as has occurred in other countries.

But the most likely reason is that many Australians have not experienced a serious lockdown in months and have little cause to be overly anxious about exactly when or where they will receive their first jab.