Big promises, blood clots and missed targets – Australia’s vaccine rollout has been plagued with issues from the beginning.
Now, with the hope to get the rollout back on track, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declared all Australians could receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine before Christmas.
But three big challenges stand in the way. This is what they are.
University of Queensland infectious disease unit head Paul Griffin named global vaccine supply as the No.1 hurdle for our rollout.
The problem, Associate Professor Griffin said, is everyone wants a vaccine and there just aren’t enough to go around.
This week, researchers from Duke University collated all the publicly announced forecasts from manufacturers and projected that globally, more than 12 billion doses could be produced this year.
But the university’s lead researcher Andrea Taylor said it’s more likely we will hit this figure towards the end of 2022.
“Supply chains could break down and countries could threaten to block vaccine exports,” she said.
As Australia knows too well, this is already happening.
India and Europe have both announced restrictions on vaccine exports while they deal with outbreaks.
This could continue to be an issue for Australia, Professor Griffin said.
“One of the best ways to handle this challenge is to be able to manufacture vaccines onshore,” Professor Griffin said.
That was our plan for AstraZeneca, but given its issues around blood clot complications, the vaccine is on shaky ground.
“So we are at the mercy of the global supply chains,” Professor Griffin said.
Mass vaccinating abilities
The vaccines will eventually arrive, and when they do, Australia will face the next challenge: How to administer them.
On Wednesday, PM Scott Morrison flagged mass vaccination hubs could potentially open in the latter half of the year, to help speed up the rollout.
But these hubs come with their own difficulties, University of NSW epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws said.
“If you’re expecting 5000 people to turn up a day, that’s very difficult. There are challenges that come with that, like traffic,” Professor McLaws said.
In the US, mass vaccination sites have been put in stadiums, baseball parks and race tracks.
That has been a relatively smooth operation – despite long queues – because their cities have the appropriate infrastructure.
Professor McLaws cited the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a successful example of traffic management, where locals were only allowed to drive on the roads on certain days, based on whether they had an odd or even number at the end of their number plate.
“You could get people working from home, and [open the vaccination hubs] in the university holidays – this is the sort of thing you need to think about for mass vaccinations,” Professor McLaws said.
She added employers will also need to plan for their workers to get the vaccine – not just factoring in the shot, but any side effects individuals might suffer that mean they need to take a sick day.
Professor Griffin said the final issue facing the rollout was confidence in the vaccine product and the government.
“We’re not just talking about anti-vaxxers whose opinions we won’t be able to change,” Professor Griffin told TND.
“There are a lot of people who are uncertain or have lost confidence in the program through how it has been communicated.
“How we get the message out there to restore confidence, that’s a huge challenge.”
Last week’s announcement that AstraZeneca is no longer a ‘preferred vaccine’ for adults under 50 created mass confusion, with vaccine appointments cancelled en masse across the country – by adults of all ages.
Professor McLaws said a greater degree of transparency would help restore confidence.
Last week Mr Morrison committed to more transparency, saying there was no reason vaccination progress figures couldn’t be made public “on a more regular basis”.
Afterwards, on Friday, the government released some data on the number of vaccines distributed by each state.
But there are still a lot of unknowns, Professor McLaws said.
“If people don’t understand something or think we’re hiding something, that’s when they walk backwards away from getting vaccinated,” she said.
“Australians are highly co-operative, but they’re only co-operative when they think the wool is not being put over their eyes.”