More than 6 million Australians are currently eligible to receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, as Australia enters the second stage of its vaccine rollout.
Phase 1B will allow Australians aged 70 and over, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 55 and over, younger Australians with underlying health conditions, and frontline healthcare workers to get vaccinated, but the effort is already hampered by delays in the first phase and vaccine shortages.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in January that the government expected to have around 4 million Australians vaccinated by the end of March, but just a week out from the end of the month, only 260,000 people have received the jab.
The government said they hoped to start the vaccination process, which began on February 21, with around 80,000 vaccinations a week (11,500 a day), but the first week saw only 33,700, followed by 53,000 in the second week. Of the 4 million expected, only 6.25 percent have received the first dose, despite being three-quarters of the way through the period in which officials aimed to reach that 4 million mark.
Australia’s longer-term target is to fully vaccinate all Australian adults by the end of October, which equates to around 200,000 doses per day, quite a jump, given earlier failings to reach even 11,500 a day.
It appears that a combination of government mismanagement and vaccine protectionism is to blame for the faulty start.
When Australia secured 53.8 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, it was with on the condition that 3.8 million doses manufactured in Europe would be delivered to Australia in early 2021, while the medical regulator moved to approve domestic production of the vaccine.
The concerns began after the EU gave marketing approval to AstraZeneca on January 29, to which the company responded by informing the EU that it would not be able to meet original dosage delivery promises because doses reserved for the EU had in fact gone to the U.K. This happened, in part, because before COVID-19 even hit Europe, the U.K. had begun funding Oxford vaccine research on the condition that all Brits would receive the vaccine before it would be exported. Simply put: Britain was AstraZeneca’s first priority.
This has since pitted the EU against AstraZeneca and the U.K., with Australia and many other countries in the crossfire.
Earlier this month, Italy used a new law that allows European countries to ban vaccine exports if the drug provider has failed to meet its obligations to the EU to block a delivery of AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia.
Australia asked the European Commission to review Italy’s decision to block the export but to no avail. Other European countries where the vaccine is produced have threatened to also block shipments if their own contracts aren’t met. The Australian government at the time denied that the block would have an impact on Australia’s vaccination efforts, but Health Secretary Brendan Murphy told a Senate committee last week that international supply issues are partly to blame for current rollout delays.
“We thought we would get 3.8 million AstraZeneca doses, and for issues that I think the committee is well aware of with sovereign vaccine issues in Europe, we’ve only had 700-odd thousand vaccines,” he said.
Enhancing the government’s efforts, Australia’s medical regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approved the domestic production of the AstraZeneca vaccine, lessening Australia’s reliance on international partners.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the TGA’s approval was a “critical next step.”
“It is the fundamental approval which allows Australia to proceed with our national vaccination strategy based on 50 million doses of Australian-made vaccines,” he said. “The decision locks in Australia’s sovereign vaccine manufacturing security and provides security of vaccine supply and safety for Australians.”
It appears getting the vaccine to Australia isn’t the only hurdle though, with Australia’s doctors left in the dark over how the rollout of the vaccine will happen.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) and the Australian Medical Association (AMA) said in a statement that the government has given Australian’s “unrealistic expectations” that they will be able to vaccinate at their local doctor’s office next week under phase 1B, stating that the government has not communicated with them about when and how many vaccines they’ll be receiving.
“It’s clear from the calls many general practices have received this morning that the government needs to better communicate with the community on the vaccine rollout process, and not build unrealistic expectations, particularly at this early stage,” said RACGP president, Dr. Karen Price.
AMA president, Dr. Omar Khorshid, said, “The rollout of the vaccine is a huge logistical challenge that is constrained by the available supply of vaccines. This means that general practices will have only a modest number of doses available for patients for now.”
Khorshid’s comments were a rebuff to the government’s call to more than 6 million Australians to begin booking vaccine appointments immediately.
The government has also been criticized for not allowing nurses to participate in administering the vaccine.
“Who made the decision to sideline Nurse Practitioners from the Commonwealth Covid vaccine response, and what was their rationale?” said Leanne Boase, president of the Australian College of Nurse Practitioners. “Here is a workforce that has extensive experience in both prescribing and administering vaccines, and yet we just watch.”
In any case, the government maintains its goal of vaccinating every Australian adult, around 20 million people, by the end of October. To achieve that target Australia would need to dramatically pick up the pace. Australian’s hopes, while currently shattered, remain high.