Batches of a world-leading coronavirus vaccine will arrive by the end of January, but Australians could have to wait two months to receive their jabs.
Close to two million doses of the AstraZeneca and University of Oxford vaccine, manufactured in Europe, will touch down later this month.
The federal government plans to only start giving them out at the end of March.
The government has been facing mounting pressure to accelerate the vaccination timetable, with questions over why Australia will be months behind other nations.
Australia’s would begin in March.
But The New Daily has confirmed nearly four million doses of AstraZeneca’s Oxford vaccine will be delivered to Australia far earlier than that.
A company spokesperson said a 1.9 million-dose shipment of the two-dose jab, enough to fully immunise nearly one million Australians, is scheduled to be delivered in January.
The second lot of 1.9 million is on track for February.
Australia has three vaccine deals with AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Novavax.
Australian stocks of AstraZeneca vaccine will mostly be produced here, by CSL, but the first 3.8 million doses will be manufactured in Europe and flown in, with an eye to inoculating priority groups like health workers and the elderly from March.
‘No short cuts’
Labor leader Anthony Albanese and some epidemiologists have said that sudden virus outbreaks and associated border closures make the case for a quicker approval.
New South Wales recorded zero new COVID cases in the latest reporting period up to 8pm on Sunday, but then on Monday it was confirmed that two people had later tested positive to the virus. Victoria logged three new cases.
The concerning Sydney outbreak, especially the cluster at Berala, prompted this week’s cricket Test match against India to be slashed to just one-quarter of normal crowd capacity.
Despite the pressure, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Australian government and the Therapeutic Goods Administration – which has yet to approve any vaccines – would not be rushed, as the nation was not experiencing the same dire virus emergency or death rates as other countries that are approving vaccines faster.
“Public health is our No.1 priority on the vaccine. There will be no short cuts,” the PM said last week.
It has been reported the TGA could approve Pfizer or AstraZeneca’s vaccines as soon as late January.
On Monday, chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly said the current timeline for a March vaccine rollout was “on target”, and resisted questions on whether that could be moved up.
“The approvals will happen when all the information we need to
make those approvals is available, and that will be fast tracked as much as possible but no shortcuts will be made,” Professor Kelly said.
“We have said all along that, by the end of March, we will have vaccines here in Australia. If some of these things end up being a bit earlier, that will be great, but we are not promising anything there.”
However, Professor Kelly added the government was “just being cautious” in sticking to the late March timeline. Further vaccine announcements could come this week, he said.
Mr Albanese questioned why the government won’t commit to a quicker vaccine rollout.
“It makes no sense for the TGA to have recommended, as it is likely to do, in January, the approval of the Pfizer vaccine, but then for the rollout to not occur until March,” he said on Monday.
“No one is calling for a shortcutting of that process. What we are saying, though, is that if you have confidence in the TGA processes, once it’s approved it should be rolled out.”
Mr Morrison claimed last week that calls to fast track the vaccine were “very dangerous” and “naive”.
But Labor’s shadow health minister Chris Bowen called that a “furphy”, saying the Opposition didn’t want to see TGA processes sidelined – only that, once approved, supplies should roll out.
“What we are saying is that once the TGA has approved it, Australians should have the right to access it,” he said on Sunday.
Further vaccine testing needed after TGA
But Professor Kelly said on Monday that even after TGA approval, there would need to be further checks on the actual supplies that arrive from overseas, to ensure the physical doses meet standards.
“After those supplies are in Australia there will be extra testing done in terms of the absolute final tick for safety. That takes a short period, then we will be starting,” he said.
Mr Morrison said last week “there’s the batches that also need to be tested as well, it’s not just about the initial vaccine itself, it’s actually what is distributed around the country”.
The UK, India, Argentina and El Salvador are among those to have given approval to AstraZeneca already. The UK planned to begin administering their jabs from Monday.
The Pfizer vaccine is also due to be “available from early 2021” according to the federal government. Australia has an agreement for 10 million doses of that drug.
Since this vaccine needs to be held at very low temperatures and is harder to store, Professor Kelly said the government will seek to have those supplies delivered far closer to the planned time of administering.
He added the government’s contracts with both Pfizer and AstraZeneca would be “binding” them to delivery in the first quarter of 2021.