Australia’s first doses of the world-leading Pfizer COVID vaccine are due to touch down within days, with the federal government hoping to have the nation’s highest-risk workers and aged-care residents fully vaccinated by the end of April.
The long-awaited and delayed vaccination rollout is due to accelerate quickly in coming weeks, with the Therapeutic Goods Administration expected to approve the AstraZeneca jab any day now.
“There are sunlit times ahead,” said an upbeat Greg Hunt, federal Health Minister, in Canberra on Sunday.
Mr Hunt expects Australia will receive about three million Pfizer-BioNTech doses by June, saying the company had confirmed that the first batch is expected to arrive “before the end of the week, if not earlier.”
Australia is due to receive 20 million doses by the end of the year.
The federal government has come under heavy pressure to speed up the timetable to begin vaccinations, with not one Australian having received a jab so far.
This stands in contrast to the tens of millions of doses given across the United States, United Kingdom, the European Union, China, Russia, South America, the Middle East and Canada.
The Australian government committed to undertaking a full standard approval process for vaccines, in contrast to many other countries which have given expedited ’emergency’ approval requiring less stringent assessment.
The Pfizer jab was approved by the TGA in late January, but issues with manufacturing and export from European factories saw fears that Australia’s shipments may be delayed or decreased.
Mr Hunt said Pfizer had committed to delivering “at least 80,000” doses by the end of this week, but hoped that number may be even higher.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that we may be able to do better than that but, as it was with masks and test kits, I will not count any of these until
they are literally in hand, until they have been secured and until they have been tested,” he said.
Mr Hunt couldn’t say how many doses would be in the next shipment, or when that would arrive, but he advised that the government was expecting some three million doses to arrive by the end of June.
Further doses of AstraZeneca, including several to be million imported plus another million per week manufactured at Melbourne’s CSL, will also be available from March and through that period.
Hi Janet, 3 m is only the Pfizer April to June component & was in response to a particular question. There is also the CSL 1 m per week from late March plus Pfizer to end March + at least 1.2 M AZ int’l by end of March. All up over 600% of the figure you quote or 6x faster.
— Greg Hunt (@GregHuntMP) February 14, 2021
Once landed in Australia, the TGA will take several days to carry out ‘batch testing’ to ensure each dose is up to standards and has not been damaged in transit before the doses before the first jabs are given.
The first group of people scheduled for jabs, in ‘Phase 1a’ of the rollout, include nearly 700,000 people working in quarantine and at international borders, frontline health workers, and residents and staff in aged care.
Mr Hunt the exact individuals to receive a jab from the first shipment of 80,000 Pfizer doses would be confirmed in coming days.
He said those in border and quarantine work would likely be at the very front of the queue, with a “specific focus” on those staff.
It comes after numerous small leaks of COVID from hotel quarantine and border workers in recent months, with lockdowns and public health orders enacted in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, and currently in Melbourne.
“Later in the week, once we have got the confirmed doses and the confirmed numbers, we will set that out to indicate that,” Mr Hunt said.
Mr Hunt said the government projected all people in Phase 1a would be vaccinated within six weeks of first jabs, which would be mid-April.
He also revealed that some in that priority group would receive the AstraZeneca jab, with first doses of that vaccine from Europe expected to touch down in early March.
The TGA is expected to formally approve the AstraZeneca vaccine in coming days.
Mr Hunt said he had talks scheduled with that company later on Sunday.
Also on Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister and Infrastructure Minister Michael McCormack toured a DHL facility, which will handle the logistics and shipping of the Pfizer vaccines.
The vaccine, an mRNA type, must be kept at at deep sub-zero temperatures, needing specialist shipping and storage in what TGA head Professor John Skerritt has called “very sophisticated eskies”.
This afternoon we were shown how the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccines across Aus was moving closer, with the plans for the complex process & safe & secure distribution, DHL is capable of handling close to 3 million Pfizer vaccine doses, as part of the initial deliveries to Aus. pic.twitter.com/5HxpC0NyWW
— Michael McCormack (@M_McCormackMP) February 14, 2021
The Pfizer jab will be distributed solely at specially equipped hospitals, with Mr McCormack saying it was vital that regional and rural areas be supported.
“I have been determined to ensure that regional and rural Australia gets the same access to the vaccine that our cities will and that’s what we are doing,” the Deputy Prime Minister said.
“Australians have done the right thing throughout this pandemic and now the Australian government is making sure everyone who wants to be vaccinated is, and is for free.
Separately, Mr Hunt also announced on Sunday an additional $1.3 million to support vaccination information being distributed to culturally, ethnically and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities.
The plan will include making interpreters available at vaccination sites, disseminating public health information and answers to questions, and to “address safety concerns within specific cultural groups if they arise to maintain confidence in the vaccination program”.
Mr Hunt said it was crucial for the vaccine program to be “accessible, inclusive and culturally safe”.
“This includes ensuring that communications are developed and targeted for CALD communities and that information and services are delivered in appropriate languages and formats and within appropriate facilities and locations,” he said.
“If they have the information, if their communities are supporting them, then the vaccine take-up will be higher and many of those are, of course, in an age group where they are more vulnerable.”