Australian health officials have promised there will be no “cutting of corners” in the testing and approval process for any potential coronavirus vaccine, while also fending off criticisms from the country’s most powerful Catholic archbishop.
The federal government last week announced the signing of a letter of intent with British drugmaker AstraZeneca, to obtain 25 million doses of a potential vaccine being developed at Oxford University – if trials of the drug prove successful.
Several other countries around the world have signed similar deals, including the United States.
The vaccine is currently in stage three trials, where it will be tested on many thousands of volunteer subjects, but the Financial Times reported Monday that American health officials are considering fast-tracking the vaccine’s rollout, potentially delivering the treatment to the virus-ravaged US before it meets regular benchmarks for a new vaccine.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week the vaccine could be available before the end of 2020, but on Monday said it “could be available next year.”
The Australian government has been under pressure to be transparent about the process of signing deals for any potential vaccine, and on Monday, deputy chief medical officer Dr Nick Coatsworth said federal health officials would not “cut corners” to get a treatment delivered faster.
“At this stage, there are no plans to do anything other than our standard process with assessing the safety process and efficacy of a vaccine,” Dr Coatsworth said, in response to a question from The New Daily.
“That is a very important message for Australians. If there is any adjustment at all to that process, it will be clearly communicated the reasons why. Noting of course that doing things quickly does not necessarily mean that corners are being cut.”
Health agencies in Australia and around the world are bracing for an onslaught of anti-vaccine misinformation and doubt to be sowed in the wake of a vaccine, with pandemic sceptic groups and established anti-vaxxer networks already criticising the plan.
Last week, Mr Morrison was forced to clarify that the vaccine would not be “compulsory”, after saying earlier in the day that it would be “as mandatory as you can possibly make”.
Dr Coatsworth on Monday said Australian officials would stick to established processes around testing and approving a vaccine.
“I think that it would be an absolute requirement for us as health professionals, for our Australian therapeutic advisory group on immunisation,” he said.
“There will be no cutting of corners when it comes to safely demonstrating the safety and efficacy of any COVID vaccine in Australia.”
Dr Coatsworth was also forced to address another brewing vaccine problem, after the Catholic archbishop of Sydney called for followers to boycott the vaccine on ethical and religious grounds.
Archbishop Anthony Fisher claimed the Oxford vaccine “makes use of a cell line cultured from an electively aborted human foetus.”
“Whether this vaccine is successful or not, it is important that the government does not create an ethical dilemma for people,” Mr Fisher wrote in a social media post on Facebook.
“Along with the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Australia, I have written to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, asking the government to pursue similar arrangements for alternate vaccines that do not raise the same ethical concerns, so that Australians will have a choice when it comes to vaccination.”
“It is in the best interests of the community that vaccination is widely taken up and this deadly disease defeated, and this will better be achieved if the vaccines available do not create an ethical quandary.”
He told followers to write to their local MP and raise similar concerns.
The letter – signed by Mr Fisher alongside Dr Glenn Davies, the Archbishop of Sydney, and Archbishop Makarios, Prime of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia – asks Mr Morrison to consider another vaccine.
Dr Coatsworth downplayed the ethical concerns raised by the religious leaders, adding that he was confident that researchers “will be taking the highest ethical standards possible.”
“The reality for the vaccines is that they need cell cultures in order for us to grow them. Human cell is really important part of their development,” he said.
“Clearly in the process for the vaccine, which is one of the leading candidates for COVID-19 vaccines, that was an important part of our process. There are strong ethical regulations surrounding the use of any human cell, particularly foetal human cells.”
“This is a very professional research unit at Oxford University, one of the world’s leading universities, so I think we can have every faith that they have manufactured the vaccine, against the highest of ethical standards internationally.”