Pressure is mounting on federal leaders to change the March timetable for a vaccine rollout, with a leading epidemiologist and former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull joining calls for the program to be brought forward.
As The New Daily revealed on Tuesday, 1.9 million doses of the promising AstraZeneca and University of Oxford will arrive in Australia this month. But the federal government is sticking to its long-held timetable of a March rollout, saying Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration does not need to rush through emergency approval.
Despite numerous nations worldwide beginning vaccinations of the models from AstraZeneca and Pfizer, the TGA has not approved either.
But leading epidemiology and infectious diseases expert Professor Raina MacIntyre, of the Kirby Institute and University of NSW, said waiting until March may have downsides.
“Delaying vaccination until March may be costly, and may lose us the opportunity to achieve herd immunity if mutant strains become dominant,” she said in a presentation on the virus, published online on Monday.
Professor MacIntyre said a more transmissible strain of COVID taking hold in Australia, like the new mutant ‘B117’ variant detected in the United Kingdom, would be harder to eliminate through vaccines.
“We’ll need higher vaccine uptake and we’ll need higher vaccine efficacy,” she said.
“If we have an introduction, through a breach in hotel quarantine, of one of these highly transmissible variants, and it sets off an outbreak, that outbreak will be much more difficult to control. If it takes off, we’ll have a much harder achieving herd immunity, which is another argument for considering expediting vaccination.”
Professor MacIntyre said the risk of such a variant sparking an outbreak in Australia was increasing, and called for workers in health, aged care and hotel quarantine to be vaccinated “as soon as possible”.
She also called for public health promotion campaigns on the vaccine to begin immediately, to prepare people “mentally” for the rollout.
Prof Raina Macintyre makes powerful case for accelerating vaccination and NOT waiting until March. Strongly recommend this video presentation. https://t.co/1oLa8lGPnY
— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) January 5, 2021
Mr Turnbull shared the video on his Twitter profile on Tuesday, saying she made a “powerful case” for “not waiting until March”.
Speaking to TND, Mr Turnbull said Professor MacIntyre’s thoughts should be considered by the federal government.
“I found Professor MacIntyre’s argument for early vaccination very persuasive and I would encourage the government to respond to it,” the former PM told TND.
This is such a helpful explanation on Covid vaccination programs by Prof Raina Macintyre — Need to act fast, go mass, and access diversified range of vaccines. And much more! Principles of vaccines programs for the control of COVID-19 https://t.co/6qNmraeMbE via @YouTube
— Lucy Turnbull AO (@LucyTurnbull_AO) January 5, 2021
Mr Turnbull’s wife Lucy also tweeted the video, saying Australia would “need to act fast”.
Mixed opinions on vaccine plan
Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese claimed the government has “dropped the ball” on vaccine rollout, and questioned why it would take until March to begin jabs.
PM Scott Morrison claimed that was “uninformed” and said the calls to fast-track the vaccine were “very dangerous”.
“It’s important that Australians have total confidence in this vaccine and that requires all the proper processes to be followed,” he told 3AW Radio on Tuesday.
“We should let the health officials do their jobs here and do it as swiftly as I know they are doing and as safely as Australians would expect.”
Other public health experts are split on the timetable.
Federal chief medical officer Paul Kelly said the approval process should not be rushed, as did Victoria’s deputy chief health officer Allen Cheng.
Dr Cheng, chair of the federal Advisory Committee for Vaccines, wrote a long Twitter thread on Monday in which he said it was important that approval processes are held to high standards, “to make sure the vaccine doesn’t make severe disease worse.”
“Many people think that published papers are the gold standard in evidence, but they just scrape the surface of what we want to know,” he wrote.
“Ultimately, the question is whether the benefit of using the vaccine outweighs the known risks and the uncertainties. Countries where there are hundreds or thousands of deaths each day are clearly willing to tolerate some uncertainty to prevent this, and this is appropriate.”
But we're in a different position in Australia – even with the current situation in NSW and VIC, we can afford to wait for the TGA to do its job and make sure we're getting a safe, effective and quality vaccine.
— Allen Cheng (@peripatetical) January 4, 2021
UNSW adjunct professor and infectious diseases expert, Bill Bowtell, said vaccines should be rolled out faster.
“It has to be accelerated,” he told TND.
“All the scientific evidence says the vaccines are fine. It’s imperative we should accelerate rollout in Australia.”
Mr Bowtell said delaying vaccination was not ideal.
“We have to figure out, importantly, how many courses we have available ready to go now. We’ve got to start straight away. We cant delay this,” he said.
“The global situation, the gravity of what’s going on, doesn’t allow us to wait. The vaccines have got to get the tick, but once it does, it has to go out. Things are not getting better, they’re getting worse.”