The coronavirus jab most Australians will receive has come under a cloud after German health officials recommended it not be given to people aged over 65.
Australia has 53 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine already on order and Melbourne laboratory CSL will produce enough to cover Australia’s whole population.
Almost all Australians will have free access to the Oxford University-developed COVID-19 vaccine which will be rolled out after the Pfizer jab is given to frontline workers and the vulnerable.
But Germany’s vaccine committee STIKO has released a draft resolution submitted to the German health ministry, advising only people aged under 65 should receive AstraZeneca’s COVID jab.
The committee has warned there is “insufficient data” to determine its effectiveness in older people.
The announcement comes just a day before the European Medicines Agency is set to decide on whether the vaccine should be approved for use across the European Union.
“There are currently insufficient data available to assess the vaccine efficacy from 65 years of age,” STIKO said in the draft resolution.
“The AstraZeneca vaccine, unlike the mRNA vaccines, should only be offered to people aged 18-64 years at each stage,” it added.
It comes after the Australian and New Zealand Society for Immunology earlier this month called for a pause of the AstraZeneca rollout amid concerns its efficacy of about 70 per cent was not enough to generate herd immunity.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he did not agree with STIKO’s submission.
“Our own authorities have made it very clear that they think the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine is very good and efficacious,” he said.
“The evidence that they’ve seen, that they’ve supplied, is that they think that it is effective across all age groups, and provides a good immune response across all age groups.”
Earlier this week, AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot admitted that because it only began jabbing older people later in their trial, there was less data about how well the vaccine performed in people aged over 65.
But he remained confident the vaccine worked when given to the elderly.
“We have strong data showing very strong antibody production against the virus in the elderly, similar to what we see in younger people,” Mr Soriot told Die Welt newspaper.
Australia’s drug regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, has yet to approve the AstraZeneca vaccine for use.
Professor Allen Cheng, an infectious diseases physician who is Chair of the Advisory Committee for Vaccines, said it was too early to say if the COVID-19 vaccine would have age limitations.
“I’m not able to say whether there will be age limitations on the registration,” he told The Guardian.
“However, this is clearly an important issue that they are looking at carefully. I understand that the European Medicines Agency is expected to make a decision shortly and that this issue has been highlighted by them.
“The TGA is in communications with other major regulators including the European Medicines Agency and [the UK regulator] the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.”
On Monday, the TGA approved Pfizer’s vaccine after concluding it met “the high safety, efficacy and quality standards required for use in Australia”.
Australia has secured 10 million doses of Pfizer, enough for five million people.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government hoped to begin vaccinations “in late February”, but that possible shipping delays may mean that could be pushed to “early March”.
Factory temporarily halts vaccine production
The unexpected submission by STIKO came a day after production of the AstraZeneca coronavirus had to be “temporarily paused”.
A bomb disposal unit was sent to a warehouse in north Wales where the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine is being produced and stored.
The factory was partially evacuated and nearby roads were closed after a suspicious package was sent to the manufacturing site.
Kent Police said a 53-year-old man from Chatham, in Kent, who is suspected of sending the package, the contents of which have not been disclosed, had been arrested.
The man remains in custody as inquiries continue.