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As Vaccines Arrive, Australia Struggles With COVID-19 ‘Infodemic,’ Too

Canberra now has a plan to begin vaccinations, but hesitancy has been on the rise among Australians.

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As Vaccines Arrive, Australia Struggles With COVID-19 ‘Infodemic,’ Too

People wait in a line at a COVID-19 testing station on the northern beaches in Sydney, Australia, Monday, December 21, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Mark Baker

After more than 28,000 cases of COVID-19 and 909 deaths, the Australian federal government has announced that the rollout of vaccines, which will commence in late February, will come in four phases over the next eight months.

Phase 1A will see people who are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, or at a higher risk of becoming very sick if they do, getting the vaccine first. This will include quarantine and border workers, frontline healthcare workers, and staff and residents at aged care and disability facilities.

Phase 1B includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 55, Australians over 70, younger people with an underlying medical condition and all other healthcare workers. 

Those in Phase 1A and 1B will receive the Pfizer vaccine, which the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approved after clinical trials showed that it would prevent symptomatic COVID-19 in 95 percent of recipients. 

All other Australians over the age of 16, which leaves around 18 million people, will receive the AstraZeneca vaccine.

After securing the rights to manufacture millions of doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Prime Minister Scott Morrison lauded it “as one of the most advanced and promising in the world.”

But doubts have been cast as to how effective the AstraZeneca vaccine will be, given that phase three clinical trials found that it is only 62 percent effective in preventing COVID-19, compared to the 95 percent of Pfizer.

The concern about the AstraZeneca vaccine’s efficacy is compounded by the number of Australians who say they will refuse a COVID-19 vaccine, hampering Australia’s effort to reach herd immunity.

Morrison himself has admitted that for Australia to reach herd immunity with AstraZeneca, “we’ll need about a 95 percent vaccination rate across the country.”

But a recent Roy Morgan study found that only 77 percent of Australians are willing to get the vaccine when it’s ready. According to the study, 12 percent of Australians say they would refuse the COVID-19 vaccine, while another 11 percent said they don’t know if they’re willing to accept or refuse. 

Alarmingly, though, is that according to past polling by Roy Morgan, there’s been a 10 percent drop in willingness to accept a COVID-19 vaccine since April 2020. 

As details of the vaccine emerge, people are understandably asking more questions. The TGA concluded that the Pfizer vaccine has an acceptable safety profile but also noted that around 60 percent of people who receive the vaccine will experience fatigue, more than half will get a headache, more than 30 percent will suffer muscle pain, and one in five will experience joint pain.

Details like these have sparked concerns among anti-vax groups across the country, which in turn fueled conspiracy rhetoric to be shared by prominent members of the Australian government.

The director general of the World Health Organization has himself stated that “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.”

The sad irony in it all is that just as Morrison’s government was preparing to spend A$24 million on ads to promote the vaccine to Australians, one of his political allies, Liberal Party member Craig Kelly, said publicly that he does not trust the TGA approval enough to get vaccinated or vaccinate his family, and continued promoting dozens of unproven drugs online.

No one in the Liberal Party, including the prime minister, has taken issue publicly with Kelly’s rhetoric. Then-acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack, earlier this month, instead defended Kelly, telling reporters that “facts sometimes are contentious.”

In response, understanding the risks misinformation shared from such seniority could cause, the peak body for Australia’s doctors, the Australian Medical Association, urged government leaders to call out misinformation from politicians, celebrities, and others who were “torching the foundation of community health and science,” reported the Guardian.

“Hopefully we can get the leaders being very strong and clear in their advice and strong about supporting science,” the AMA’s vice president, Dr. Chris Moy, said.

The government has also failed to call Kelly out on his touting of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19, despite various reputable journals having found that it was ineffective and could even have severe or deadly side effects.

Kelly and George Christensen, another common conspirator in government, are among the most popular on social media, and with none of their colleagues calling them out, it is perhaps not all that surprising that Australians’ hesitancy to vaccinate has increased in recent months.