Covid vaccine rollout 'still on track' despite AstraZeneca change

Health Minister Greg Hunt. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Health Minister Greg Hunt. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

The federal Health Minister says Australia remains on track to give a COVID-19 vaccine dose to every Australian who wants one by the end of 2021, despite access to the main locally produced vaccine being significantly restricted over health concerns.

In yet another blow to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout - which now has the military-like name "Operation Covid Shield" - the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) is recommending the AstraZeneca vaccine be only given to people aged over 60. It is a reaction to the death of a second Australian, a 52-year-old woman, who developed a very rare but severe case of blood clots associated with the vaccine.

With two deaths out of approximately 4 million doses, Pfizer is now the preferred vaccine for people under 60 - although ATAGI is recommending all planned second doses of AstraZeneca go ahead.

"In particular, we recognise that this is a conservative position, but relative to Australia's risk of having Covid," Mr Hunt said.

"For those who are in the 50-to-59 group, [this] is a change, and we recognize that that does bring some challenges.

"They will now have access to Pfizer. They do need, and we ask for, their patience."

Health Department secretary Brendan Murphy conceded on Thursday there was a chance the updated advice would impact vaccine hesitancy in Australia, although he said vaccine hesitancy was generally regarded as low in Australia.

About 2.1 million Australians are affected by the change. As it stands, 6.2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in Australia so far, still far off the number needed for about 20 million Australians to have received two doses.

Federal Labor says the rollout is a shambles and the government has been caught out focusing on AstraZeneca - the centrepiece of the government's vaccine rollout strategy.

"Our quarrel is with the government's refusal to take out enough insurance against this very sort of thing happening," Mark Butler said on Thursday. "This vaccine rollout has been bungled time and time again and it is leaving Australians dangerously exposed."

"Now that that's not the preferred vaccine for the vast bulk of the Australian population - everyone aged under 60 - we're left with Pfizer, which is coming in at still very small doses a week."

The minister confirmed in Parliament on Thursday that the government commenced negotiations with Pfizer when the company said it was ready. That was at the end of June last year.

"The advice of the scientific and technical advisory group was to secure an initial 10 million," Mr Hunt told Parliament. "There was no earlier available volume to the best of my advice and knowledge."

But he insists authorities are adapting, following medical advice and the rollout is on target, despite there being no official target.

"Are we on track to offer every Australian a vaccine who is eligible during the course of 2021? The answer remains, and [the] advice we have is, yes," Mr Hunt said.

The significant change to health advice came as a COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney's eastern suburbs grew to three cases after a limousine driver breached quarantine protocols. There have been no new cases recorded in Victoria.

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As a response to the changing health advice, Mr Hunt said the supply for Pfizer would be increasing. Nearly three million Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine doses are expected to arrive in Australia next month to allow authorities to "expand the coverage".

"What we're expecting is to go from this month, approximately 1.7 million doses, to 2.8 million over July, with the remaining 32.6 million doses to be delivered during the course of the year," he said.

Taskforce commander Lieutenant-General John Frewen has direct control of the rollout, which is now known as "Operation Covid Shield." He says it is under comprehensive review.

"I am given the aim of ensuring as many Australians as possible get vaccinated as quickly as possible, within the available resources. And that's what I intend to do," he said.

"I will be looking for any opportunity to optimise the current plans."

The Chief of the Army is also talking up the chances of meeting unofficial government targets.

"I'm confident that we will still meet the primary aim of giving every Australian who wants a vaccine, access to a vaccine by the end of this year," he said.

There are approximately 815,000 Australians who have had a first dose of AstraZeneca and are waiting for a second.

This story Vaccine rollout 'still on track' despite AstraZeneca advice change first appeared on The Canberra Times.