Anti-vaxxers and COVID-19 sceptic groups are exploiting confusion around the AstraZeneca jab to further undermine Australia’s vaccine rollout.
Conspiracy theory groups are lobbying aged-care workers to go on strike and taking out truck-mounted mobile billboards to twist vaccine rule changes to suit their agenda.
Several right-wing federal politicians have raised similar concerns.
“Are these the newest faces of the anti-vax movement?” asked one prominent COVID-sceptic page on Facebook, alongside a photo of Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and chief health officer Dr Jeannette Young.
State premiers claimed it wasn’t discussed at Monday’s national cabinet and they didn’t support it, while GPs and the Australian Medical Association said they weren’t consulted.
“Wouldn’t it be terrible that our first 18-year-old in Queensland who dies related to this pandemic, died because of the vaccine?” Dr Young said during a press conference on Wednesday.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) advised Pfizer is the preferred vaccine for those under 60, while AstraZeneca is preferred for those over 60.
ATAGI’s latest advice said the risk of very rare blood clots associated with the AstraZeneca jab was 1.5 per 100,000 in those over 60, and 2.4 in those under 60.
The AMA and ATAGI reaffirmed advice that Pfizer is preferred for those under 60, but Dr Young’s comments have been met with criticism.
Former deputy chief medical officer Dr Nick Coatsworth claimed Dr Young was “on a very lonely limb” after “nearly every medical leader distanced themselves”, while Royal Australian College of General Practitioners director Charlotte Hespe called it “scaremongering”.
But a video posted by Ms Palaszczuk on social media soon found a receptive audience in anti-vaxxer groups, quickly spreading through private communities on Facebook and Telegram.
Anti-vaxxers jump on AstraZeneca confusion
One such group, which was behind several large anti-lockdown protests around the country, shared clips from the press conference multiple times in recent days.
Group members commented approvingly that Dr Young had “swallowed some truth potion” and dropped a “truth bomb”.
One prominent Australian anti-vaxxer told her several thousand followers on Facebook that Dr Young was “talking some sense” and “had a few truth bombs”.
Other separate groups played up Dr Young’s warnings of “catastrophic” side effects in posts to their thousands of followers.
“In a few short hours, these two ladies have done more damage to the AZ jab and vaccine confidence in Australia, than any ‘anti-vaxxer’ could ever imagine,” one prominent anti-lockdown activist claimed, to his 24,000 Facebook fans.
The New Daily has chosen not to name the groups.
The same groups also seized on Mr Morrison’s announcement that all aged-care workers would be required to get vaccinated by September.
Another prominent group that helped organise anti-lockdown protests, with more than 75,000 followers across Facebook and Telegram, encouraged aged-care workers to go on strike on Monday in protest to mandatory vaccinations.
Organisers also asked followers to hand out flyers at aged-care homes over the weekend, despite restrictions on visiting care facilities in several states due to current COVID outbreaks.
The same group used donations from followers to organise a mobile billboard, mounted on a truck, to drive around Melbourne over the weekend, displaying messages sceptical of vaccination.
They plan to picket outside the office of a federal Liberal MP on Monday.
Aged-care decision criticised
Several federal politicians have also criticised the aged-care decision in recent days.
One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts shared multiple posts in the past week against the mandatory vaccination decision.
One video posted on Facebook, titled ‘Fighting against mandatory vaccines’, was one of the most popular Facebook posts in Australia over the weekend.
It attracted nearly 10,000 interactions through likes and comments, was shared 5000 times, and watched more than 82,000 times.
Medical groups, however, have praised the aged-care vaccination move.
Hundreds of elderly Australians have died of COVID in care facilities, with outbreaks in homes posing major risks for residents and concerns for government.
In a separate post, Senator Roberts claimed the mandatory vaccine decision would be “depriving aged-care carers of their livelihoods”.
Noting the comments from Dr Young and Ms Palaszczuk, he also decried “so many state and federal government twists, turns, reversals and false statements contradicting data” on the vaccine rollout.
Some of Senator Roberts’ posts were also praised in the anti-vaxxer Telegram groups.
Senator Hanson also posted a message in opposition to “mandatory vaccines” for aged-care workers, asking her followers if they thought the government “will go too far”.
Craig Kelly, the Liberal-turned-independent MP, and former One Nation senator Rod Culleton were approving of Dr Young’s comments on AstraZeneca.
Mr Culleton, whose new Great Australia Party will run controversial former celebrity chef Pete Evans as a Senate candidate at the next federal election, posted several links to Dr Young’s comments on social media over the weekend.
Mr Kelly claimed extending AstraZeneca to under-40s was “unconscionable madness” and said “Qld CMO Dr Young is right [sic]”.