Health Minister Greg Hunt is “not ruling out” the possibility Australians will get COVID vaccines ahead of schedule, as the government speeds up the much-anticipated rollout.
The vaccine delivery will be on the agenda at an emergency meeting of national cabinet on Friday, where state premiers will also discuss strengthening airport arrivals and hotel quarantine over the new United Kingdom strain of the virus.
It comes in the face of mounting pressure from the Opposition and epidemiologists for a faster vaccine plan, with Labor leader Anthony Albanese claiming Australia was “at the back of the vaccine queue”.
Millions of people in more than a dozen countries have already been vaccinated against the coronavirus, but Mr Hunt said Australia was sticking to plans for “a full safety assessment process” before administering needles.
As recently as Monday, chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly said Australia’s first jabs would begin in “late March”.
On Wednesday, however, the Health Minister moved that up by two weeks, and hinted it could begin even earlier.
“We’ve been able to bring our vaccination commencement schedule forward from the middle of the year to the second quarter, to late March and now to early March,” Mr Hunt told 2GB radio.
“And I’m not ruling out further steps.”
The New Daily revealed on Monday that nearly two million doses of the leading Oxford University and AstraZeneca vaccine would land in Australia this month but Australians would not be vaccinated until two months later.
Epidemiologist Professor Raina MacIntyre said waiting until March “could be costly” and allow mutant COVID strains – like the worrying new variety detected in the UK – to take root.
Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull told TND the argument for early vaccination was “very persuasive” and that he “would encourage the government to respond to it”.
Mr Hunt, echoing previous sentiments from the government, said Australia did not need to rush approvals for vaccines.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration is currently considering applications for the AstraZeneca model, plus one from Pfizer. Both are already being rolled out in various countries overseas.
TND understands the TGA is on track to approve the Pfizer model in late January, and AstraZeneca in February.
There were reports the AstraZeneca drug was delayed due to a paperwork issue, but health officials said that was not the case and that model had always been on track for a February approval.
“Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Australia and the jurisdiction of Taiwan, they’re all looking at a very similar timeframe,” Mr Hunt told 2GB, citing other nations in a similar position to Australia of having largely controlled COVID.
Australia has contracts for 10 million doses of Pfizer, and 50 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccines.
Mr Hunt said initial doses would be given to workers in hotel quarantine, health workers and those in residential aged care.
But Labor leader Anthony Albanese has again hit out at the government’s timetable. He said that, if the TGA approves a vaccine in January, it was inappropriate Australians should have to wait until March.
“No one has suggested Australia’s TGA processes should not be followed,” Mr Albanese said on Wednesday.
“Once a vaccine is approved, we need to make it available to Australians right away, not months down the road.”
Once a vaccine is approved, we need to make it available to Australians right away, not months down the road like Scott Morrison has planned.
Vaccines are our ticket out of this pandemic. Let’s get a move on.
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) January 6, 2021
More than 4.8 million people have already been vaccinated in the US.
Some 4.5 million in China, 1.4 million in Israel, one million in the UK, 800,000 in Russia, and hundreds of thousands more in Germany, Canada, Spain, Mexico, Bahrain, Argentina and other European nations have also been vaccinated.
But before Australia does the same, the government said it was crucial to batch test the actual vaccine supplies.
“After those supplies are in Australia, there will be extra testing done in terms of the absolute final tick for safety,” Professor Kelly said on Sunday.
TND contacted the federal Department of Health, as well as Pfizer, for comment on timelines and delivery dates.
Mr Morrison also inadvertently set off an international tiff on Tuesday, after suggesting in another radio interview that British authorities were rushing out their vaccines without batch testing.
That was met with a rebuke from the United Kingdom’s health regulator.
“[The UK is] not testing batches of vaccines before they’re disseminated across the population, is my understanding,” Mr Morrison told 3AW on Tuesday.
But in a response to the Nine newspapers, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said it was doing batch testing, “without compromising quality and safety”.