The vaccine rollout in Australia has taken another blow, with people under 50 now being urged not to get the key vaccine the federal government has been counting on, forcing an urgent “recalibration” of the plan.
Following very rare cases of blood clotting problems overseas, most young Australians will not receive the AstraZeneca vaccine – an explosive move that could further delay the rollout of the vaccination after October and see lockdowns and shutdown international borders extend until 2022.
“We anticipate that this will require changes to the arrangements we have for the rollout of the vaccination,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at a press conference Thursday evening in Parliament.
“This includes when we might expect our first doses to be available to all Australians.”
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunization (ATAGI) said the AstraZeneca vaccine is safe and effective for people over 50, but the vaccine should only be given to people under 50 “when the benefits clearly outweigh the risk in that person’s situation ”.
It is understood that those under 50 will always have the choice to be vaccinated, but this will be a decision made in collaboration with a healthcare professional.
Australia relied on 54 million doses of AstraZeneca to immunize a large part of the population.
It has been repeatedly described as the “workhorse” or the foundation for the national vaccine rollout by federal ministers and health officials, who initially indicated that most Australians should expect to receive this vaccine. .
Mr Morrison – speaking alongside Health Minister Greg Hunt, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly and Department of Health Secretary Brendan Murphy – has repeatedly stressed that expert advice does not recommend any changes or no additional caution for those over 50.
“I would like to reiterate that we strongly encourage those 50 and over to adopt the AstraZeneca vaccine. It is a very effective vaccine in preventing severe COVIDs, ”said Professor Murphy.
ATAGI said it delivered the decision Thursday evening after growing evidence of a “rare but serious side effect involving thrombosis (coagulation) with thrombocytopenia (low platelet count)”.
Australia’s caution does not go as far as Britain, which earlier Thursday ordered a different vaccine to be given to those under 30.
The problems are found in just four to six cases per million vaccinations, Professor Kelly said.
Instead, Australia recommended the Pfizer vaccine for young people.
The Pfizer vaccine has a slightly higher rate of effectiveness against COVID than AstraZeneca, but Australia has only contracted for 20 million doses of Pfizer as the company and government are unable to give a solid timetable for delivery beyond “by the end of 2021”.
Approximately 900,000 doses of Pfizer have arrived to date.
“We are confident that at some point in the near future we will get a better supply of Pfizer,” said Professor Murphy.
In contrast, AstraZeneca was the most important part of Australia’s vaccination plan, with 54 million doses.
The federal government had planned to offer all Australians at least their first two-dose Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine vaccine regimens by October.
That timeline was already uncertain due to the slower-than-expected rollout, with less than one million Australians vaccinated, contrary to earlier projections of four million now.
Mr Morrison has repeatedly declined to answer whether the AstraZeneca decision was going to dent October’s hopes, but admitted there would be forced changes to the rollout.
“There will be a recalibration of how the program should be adjusted to reflect the decision taken by the government,” Morrison said Thursday evening.
“The longer term schedule of the program is being revised following this medical opinion,” said a written statement from Messrs. Morrison and Hunt.
The federal government had tentatively chosen the end of October as a potential date to reopen Australia’s international borders.
It was no coincidence that this was in line with the original schedule to get all Australians vaccinated. Mr Morrison would not confirm whether the October deadline was now out of reach, but it would be difficult to reopen international borders if enough Australians were not vaccinated.
“We learned this at 7 o’clock tonight, and I think we need to take the time to assess the implications,” the prime minister said.
“When we do that, maybe we can form an opinion. But I don’t think anyone should be expecting this anytime soon. It will take some time to analyze the implications. “
The federal government is likely to be the subject of further criticism from Labor for having only concluded three vaccine contracts.
Chris Bowen, the former shadow Labor Minister of Health, repeatedly hammered the government last year for signing just three vaccine contracts.
“The best practice in the world is to do five or six transactions, in order to spread the risk. We don’t know which vaccine will really pass, ”Bowen said last year.
Australia’s third vaccine candidate, Novavax, could end up being bigger than expected.
It is not expected to be available until October, but Australia has ordered 51 million doses and the vaccine has performed very well in clinical trials – in the region of 95% effectiveness, on par with Pfizer.
However, clinical trials are continuing and Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration has yet to receive applications for vaccine approval.
Australia may now consider entering into further vaccine deals.
“We are currently reviewing all of the vaccine purchases that we have made. We have 51 million Novavax coming later in the year. We are looking at when we can offer other vaccines, ”said Professor Murphy.
Changes to the deployment plan are expected to be announced in the coming days.