Australian officials are working behind the scenes to make deals and secure supplies of a COVID vaccine, if and when it becomes available.
But don’t hold your breath just yet.
“This may even be years until an effective and safe vaccine has been developed, and is able to be distributed and administered to people right around the world,” deputy chief medical officer Professor Michael Kidd said on Wednesday.
People worldwide are rationalising lockdowns, border closures and face masks as temporary until a vaccine, but it’s not that simple.
Indeed, the assumption a vaccine will be discovered may be wrong.
According to the World Health Organisation, a vaccine may “never” come.
“A number of vaccines are now in phase 3 clinical trials, and we all hope to have a number of effective vaccines that can help prevent people from infection,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week.
“However, there is no silver bullet at the moment, and there might never be.”
Scientists have pointed out that even today, no vaccine has ever been discovered for other coronaviruses like SARS or MERS, or even the common cold, so a COVID vaccine is no guarantee.
‘Whoever finds it, must share it’
In response to questions from The New Daily at the daily press conference held by Australia’s deputy chief medical officers, Professor Kidd said even if a vaccine is discovered, it could be “years” before it is able to be mass-produced and administered to a high enough level that borders can reopen and life can return to normal.
“We do have to be preparing to live with COVID-19 for as long as possible,” he said.
“Clearly the aim in Australia is that we will continue to drive community transmission levels down to as low as possible to allow the people of Australia to get on with their lives.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he expected – as did many global leaders – that any country that makes a vaccine breakthrough would share the discovery with the world.
Asked about the idea of ‘vaccine diplomacy’ during a Q&A session of the Aspen Security Forum, at which he appeared via Zoom video link, the PM said the world would look “dimly” on any country that blocked a vaccine from wide availability.
“In all discussions I’ve had with other leaders, there’s a very strong view that whoever finds it, must share it,” Mr Morrison told the conference.
“It should be out there as widely and freely available as possible, to ensure the world can deal with this. That’s certainly our view.
“We press that view. The idea of any country hoarding or seeking to restrict the vaccine in these circumstances would be, in our view, unimaginable.”
The PM said Australia was investing $300 million into the international GAVI vaccine alliance, which undertakes vaccination research, and was also supporting work being done domestically and internationally.
Labor’s shadow health minister Chris Bowen has however recently criticised the federal government for not doing more to directly support COVID vaccine research.
In an opinion piece for The Australian newspaper last week, Mr Bowen claimed that “all of Australia’s eggs are in one basket” because the government had “invested in only one potential vaccine, at the University of Queensland”.
“While there’s no doubt Australia’s world-class researchers are playing a crucial role in vaccine development, it’s important to ask if the federal government is doing enough to support them and ensure we can access a vaccine here when the time comes,” Mr Bowen wrote.
“Its $5 million commitment to the UQ project is half that of the Queensland government and a fraction of what other countries are investing in their own candidates.”
Vaccine breakthrough ‘owes it’ to the world
The discussion then turns to Australia trying to secure a COVID vaccine from overseas – instead of relying on discovering our own.
Mr Morrison told the Aspen conference he had had “outstanding discussions” with countries including France, the United Kingdom and United States around sharing vaccines, and that once the formula is discovered, it could be produced in Australia.
“We’d hope any country that finds this, owes it to the global community to be open and transparent,” the PM said.
In Canberra, Professor Kidd said researchers were looking to help international colleagues and looking to strike agreements to ensure vaccines “will be available to our population”.
“In order for Australia to open up our borders once a vaccine becomes available it will need to be available to everybody in the world, not just to individual countries,” he said.
“So it is really important that the vaccine developments that take place are going to be providing solutions that are going to work for everyone in the world and that the vaccines will be available in all countries around the world.”