Healthcare workers have reacted with caution and excitement at the news that they could soon be among the first Australians to receive a coronavirus vaccine.
They’ve been on the front lines fighting COVID-19 and have incurred the largest number of infections in Australia so far, but not all healthcare workers looking forward to ‘getting the jab’.
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has been given a fast-tracked green light to supply its vaccine across Britain, with the country’s deputy medical officer revealing doses would arrive “with hours not days”.
Britain is expecting 800,000 doses, which could be enough to inoculate 400,000 people. It is the first country in the world to approve and distribute the Pfizer vaccine.
However, the US’s top infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, has issued a warning about Britain’s rapid rollout, saying regulatory authorities there were completely rigorous in their assessment.
“The UK did not do it as carefully,” he told Fox News. “If you go quickly and you do it superficially, people are not going to want to get vaccinated.”
“The way the FDA is, our FDA is doing it, is the correct way.
“We really scrutinise the data very carefully to guarantee to the American public that this is a safe and efficacious vaccine.”
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Thursday Australia was “ahead of schedule” on its five-stage vaccination rollout and that healthcare workers would be the first group to receive it.
“We are on track for decisions on the early vaccines by the end of January,” Dr Hunt said, adding that Australia would closely monitor Britain’s rollout.
Health officials have stressed Australia has one of the strictest regulatory processes for vaccine distribution.
That hasn’t eased all the concerns of many health workers as the prepare for a mass vaccination.
Adelaide nurse Kathryn Abbott said she was normally a big fan of vaccines.
“I’m the first in line to have them and all my kids have had all their immunisations,” Ms Abbott told The New Daily.
But this time around she has reservations, mainly about the speed in which it was made.
“There are multiple vaccines available, which also makes me hesitant,” she said.
If it is a requirement of my work to have it. I will be choosing which vaccine I have.”
Ms Abbott is not alone.
Diane, who works in an aged care facility in Victoria, said the vaccine was the only topic of discussion in the lunchroom.
“We are all of the understanding that we will have to have it, there’s no choice. So if I’m required I will,” she said.
“But it doesn’t come without a little bit of anxiety of how quickly they’ve got it. I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Dr Jessica Kaufman is an expert in vaccine acceptance at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.
She says it’s not uncommon to see scepticism among healthcare workers, and that we need to be really careful not to treat concern the same as the anti-vaxxer movement.
“It’s important to validate that this situation is unprecedented and people do have questions,” Dr Kaufman said.
This was why the government and leading health bodies needed to get on the front foot and communicate with these groups about their concerns, she said.
“Healthcare workers would be one community who need to have specific information provided to them, in a way that resonates,” Dr Kaufman said.
Taking all Australians on the journey – from lab to jab – was essential in making sure they feel confident in taking the vaccine, she said.
“Now is the time to start the messaging,” she said.
“I’m really excited about this development, we have a big opportunity to make a big difference and release a great vaccine.”
Of course, not everyone in the health care sector is hesitant.
Lisa Abejja works in aged care in WA and is studying her last year of nursing. She has a child with a chronic lung disease and has lost family to COVID-19 overseas.
“I’m afraid of this virus and seeing the devastation of it overseas just heightens that fear,” Ms Abejja said.
“I’ll trust that it’s safe and hope that my decision won’t prove to be the wrong one. The thought of bringing home COVID to my family, or indeed taking it to work is incomprehensible.”
Siobhan Williams, a nurse at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne said: “After the year we’ve had working on the frontline, it’ll be a huge relief to get a vaccine soon.”
Combating everyone’s concerns about the vaccine starts with explaining how it was made so quickly, said Paul Griffin, associate professor of medicine at the University of Queensland.
“The actual clinical trial hasn’t been shortened,” Dr Griffin said.
“Typically, when you go from one to the other there’s a gap when you raise more funding, but we had all the resources we need from the outset.”
Vaccine development processes such as running clinical trials, evaluating data, building manufacturing plants and then distributing it, typically happen one after another and take a long time.
Because of a worldwide effort, they have been overlapped.
Adding to this, was the fact the scientists did not start from scratch, they had blueprints from SARS, he said.
“While we have been able to progress quickly it’s not through cutting clinical trials, safety or effectiveness,” Dr Griffin said.
Dr Rob Grenfell is the CSIRO’s health and biosecurity director and was involved in pre-clinical trials for AstraZeneca and Inovio Pharmaceuticals vaccine candidates
He said the average time a vaccine usually took to be made was 10 years, and everyone should be sceptical – ask questions, get answers.
“What I know being involved with candidates is that there has not been a compromise made on the effectiveness on the vaccine and the safety of the vaccine, in the animals and human studies,” he said.
“Where the time shortening has occurred is the involvement of regulators and manufacturing companies.”
The biggest defence Australians have against themselves and an underperforming vaccine is the Therapeutic Goods Administration – and it is known as one of the strictest regulators in the world, he said.
“Healthcare workers in Australia should have the greatest confidence in the TGA ruling. They are known as one of the toughest in the world,” he said.