Throughout 2020, Australia was the envy of the world. While health care systems and economies from Europe to South America were brought to their knees, it was business as usual for much of the land down under.
A closed international border and swift, sometimes harsh, lockdowns, prevented the coronavirus from taking hold. As of December 31, Australia had recorded a total of 28,408 cases of COVID-19, less than what some countries recorded in a single day at the time.
Apart from the state of Victoria, which spent four months in varying degrees of lockdown, the rest of the country lived relatively care and COVID-free. If it weren’t for shocking images of overwhelmed hospitals in Italy or mass burial grounds in Iran, Australians could’ve been forgiven for forgetting there was even a pandemic. Australia had reached a “COVID normal,” where people could visit restaurants and nightclubs and attend festivals and large sports events.
Despite its closed border shutting out both tourism and international students, two of the country’s largest money-makers, its economy fared well, too. The United Kingdom and Sweden, two countries that toyed with the idea of prioritizing the economy over public health, have suffered worse economic losses than Australia, despite its lockdowns. Australia’s GDP contracted by just 1.1 percent last year compared to the U.K.’s 9.9 percent and Sweden’s 2.9 percent.
Early this year, the Washington Post, Forbes, and the Financial Times all praised Australia for its successes; so too did Director of the U.S National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci.
“Just this past winter and late fall we were averaging an extraordinary 300,000 to 400,000 cases per day, and 3,000 to 4,000 deaths per day,” Fauci told Australia’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly. “That’s just a completely different galaxy than what Australia was experiencing.”
But it appears Australia’s initial successes may have rendered it complacent. As countries that had been hard-hit by COVID-19 rapidly began their vaccine rollouts, Australia seemed caught off guard. First, it emerged that Australia had not secured enough vaccines to inoculate its population.
Pfizer’s former president of global R&D, John LaMattina, told the Guardian that Australia’s delay in securing a deal with Pfizer and the amount it eventually secured was “unconscionable.”
“Once the amazing and unprecedented efficacy of the mRNA vaccines was established, ordering a mere 10 [million] doses was unconscionable,” he says. “When both Pfizer and Moderna demonstrated the potent efficacy of their vaccines, every country should immediately have reached out to these companies to place their orders.”
Then, as vaccines did begin to trickle in, Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Australians that it “was not a race,” despite almost every other country in the world acting as if it were.
Australia has so far relied on two vaccines: Pfizer and AstraZeneca. Having secured too few Pfizer shots, AstraZeneca was there to fill the void. Australia had local production rights and had the infrastructure to manufacture at least a million doses a week.
Following reports in April of extremely rare blood clots linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunization (ATAGI) decided to limit the AstraZeneca vaccine to those over 60. A similar decision was made in the U.K., but the limit was set to those over 40.
But then came Delta. The new variant, more contagious and more deadly, has challenged Australia’s previous lockdown successes. Sydney, Australia’s largest city, is now in its eighth week of lockdown, with cases continuing to rise, reaching a daily record of 478 on Monday. Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, has spent four of the last five weeks also in lockdown. It appears lockdown measures are not enough to keep Delta at bay.
With the risk of Delta getting away from contact tracers, and Australia ranking dead last among OECD countries on vaccinations, ATAGI yet again revised their recommendation on AstraZeneca. Not only did ATAGI now suggest people under 60 in outbreak areas consider getting AstraZeneca but the body recommended a shorter gap between the two doses.
But the damage was done. Burnet Institute Director Brendan Crabb told the Sydney Morning Herald that the reputation of AstraZeneca had been tarnished.
“COVID is truly terrible and there’s every chance AstraZeneca-induced immunity would stand between me and serious illness,” he said “But there’s no doubt its reputation is tarnished, perhaps even to the point of no return in Australia. I certainly hope that’s not the case because there’s a lot at stake here.”
Just days after the federal government opened up AstraZeneca for younger Australians, the state of Queensland went on the offensive.
“I do not want under 40s to get AstraZeneca,” said Dr. Jeannette Young, Queensland’s chief health officer. “Wouldn’t it be terrible if our first 18-year-old in Queensland who dies related to this pandemic, died because of the vaccine?”
The squabbling continued online between health experts and public health communicators.
Dr. Norman Swan, an acclaimed Australian medical reporter for the ABC, said Sydney’s combination of a lockdown and vaccine push to control their outbreak hasn’t been tried anywhere else.
“Residents in Greater Sydney are guinea pigs in this, to see whether or not if you can really intensify vaccination, can you bend the curve backwards,” he said.
Infectious diseases and respiratory medicine expert Dr. Nick Coatsworth responded: “No, Dr. Swan, they are not guinea pigs. I vaccinated during measles in Chad in 2005. Rapid vaccination during an epidemic is part of epidemic control. And it’s what every other country has done with COVID-19.”
In any case, with AstraZeneca now widely available, there has been a surge in uptake. Australia is now ranked 35th out of 38 for vaccinations in the OECD, instead of dead last. Morrison has also since conceded that it is in fact a race.
“It doesn’t matter how you start the race, it is how you finish the race,” he said.