The nation’s COVID vaccine rollout will soon enter a new phase as approval for a third vaccine nears and hope swirls for plans to start vaccinating children.
A cornerstone of that level up will be the world-leading Moderna vaccine, which is believed to be gaining Therapeutic Goods Administration approval within a fortnight – and to be delivered into arms across Australia not long after.
Health Minister Greg Hunt says state clinics and Commonwealth GPs are now achieving “magnificent” jab numbers, which he expects to soon rise to two million a week as larger quantities of Pfizer finally arrive.
“We can see that in the near doubling of vaccination rates from 700,000 a month and a half ago per week to almost 1.3 million over the last seven days,” Mr Hunt said on Sunday.
The federal government has long been counting down the days to big shipments of Pfizer in the final quarter of 2021, describing the final three months as a “sprint” to vaccinate the whole nation.
That news should provide some hope for all, especially for the millions of Australians in lockdown across New South Wales and Victoria – and the thousands of people in Queensland impacted by new snap health orders which began on Sunday night.
NSW announced on Sunday it had recorded 262 new local COVID-19 cases. At least 72 of those people were in the community while infectious.
The outbreak has killed at least 28 people.
A nail salon in a Westfield mall, cafes, a vaping outlet, as well as Aldi, Westfield and Coles supermarkets are among the latest Sydney exposure sites named on Sunday night.
Rules have tightened in a dozen suburbs in the city’s outer west after they were deemed “areas of concern” for transmission.
People in the Penrith suburbs must now only shop for food or other essentials within 5 kilometres of home. They can’t travel to other areas for work unless they are an authorised worker.
The NSW Hunter and the Armidale region are also enduring snap week-long lockdowns.
- Click here for the full list of NSW exposure sites
In Victoria, meanwhile, it has been revealed that pregnant patients at the Joan Kirner Women’s and Children’s Hospital may have been exposed to an infectious person who was in the maternity assessment centre on Friday.
The hospital was named among a dozen new exposure sites which also included a Bunnings, a car-tinting retailer, a dance studio, a bottle shop, a pharmacy and a pathology clinic. They are all located in Melbourne’s west.
Speculation is mounting that Victorians could have to endure lockdown for longer than a week after 29 cases were recorded on Saturday and another 11 on Sunday.
Premier Daniel Andrews said no decision had been made on whether rules would lift on Thursday.
He said leaders remained concerned by two mystery cases behind the latest outbreaks. It’s still not known how the first case, a teacher at Al-Taqwa College, caught the virus.
- Click here to see the full list of Victorian exposure sites
The news was better for 11 local government areas of southeast Queensland – including Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast – as lockdown lifted on Sunday night.
But while that was happening, residents in the north were being sent indoors.
The state recorded nine new cases on Sunday including an unvaccinated taxi driver who was infectious in the Cairns community for 10 days.
That led authorities to order Cairns and Yarrabah residents into lockdown for three days.
Supermarkets in the suburb of Manunda and a cafe in Parramatta Park were named as exposure sites in the latest update at 4pm on Sunday, along with a doctor’s office and a pathology clinic in Cairns CBD.
- Click here for the full list of Queensland exposure sites
Moderna vaccine to debut in Australia
With all that going on, it’s a relief that we can look forward to getting access to another mRNA vaccine that has a near-identical efficacy rate to Pfizer. But the timetable for us actually receiving the drug remains somewhat unclear.
Australia did not place a Moderna order until May this year, with 10 million doses to arrive in 2021 and 15 million in 2022.
On Sunday, Mr Hunt confirmed the TGA was expected to approve Moderna “within the next two weeks”, with expectations that one million doses will arrive from “the middle of September”.
That’s an increase on previous government supply ‘horizons’, which forecast some 500,000 Moderna doses arriving in September.
“We’re expecting a result, and the guidance from Professor John Skerritt, the head of the TGA, is within the next two weeks, if not earlier. And there are no red flags. There are only very positive signs about a highly effective vaccine,” Mr Hunt told Insiders on Sunday.
“Our expectation is that we’ll have the first million in September. probably more towards the middle of September, but we haven’t got final guidance.”
Federal vaccine co-ordinator Lieutenant-General John Frewen has previously said once more Pfizer and Moderna arrives, Australians may get a “choice” of which vaccine they want.
On Sunday, Mr Hunt said the government expected three million Moderna vaccine doses per month to arrive in Australia, for the last three months of the year.
That was on top of an expected two million Pfizer doses arriving each week in the final quarter.
The race heats up
Australia hit a record 240,039 doses of vaccine delivered on Thursday, on the back of New South Wales significantly boosting its distribution of AstraZeneca vaccines through pharmacies and state hubs, and widening supply through Victoria and Queensland.
On Sunday, Victoria announced a nation-first, drive-through vaccine clinic, while also expanding AstraZeneca access at state clinics to make it easier for young people to get their jab.
In Sydney, a 21,000-seat stadium in Olympic Park will serve as a vaccine hub for Year 12 students from eight coronavirus-hit council areas for the next week.
These students include those who study or reside in the Liverpool, Cumberland, Fairfield, Canterbury-Bankstown, Parramatta, Blacktown, Georges River and Campbelltown council areas.
The arena will cater solely for the Year 12 students before becoming a mass AstraZeneca hub for adults from next week.
The Victorian and NSW initiatives should see vaccination rates climb this week.
The Prime Minister’s office has pointed out that, on a per capita basis, Thursday’s 240,000 daily figure was higher than some of the peaks of the United Kingdom’s vaccine rollout.
However, some epidemiologists and public health experts have raised alarm that children under 16 are currently not in line to receive vaccines.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is approved in Australia for those 18 and older.
Pfizer has been approved by the TGA for 12 and over, but is only being given out to people over 16.
Mr Hunt said that would change from Monday, with select groups of children – including the immunocompromised, those with underlying health conditions and Indigenous – being extended Pfizer jabs.
But Mr Hunt said it was “likely” the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) would widen Pfizer eligibility to all children over 12.
The minister said the TGA process for Moderna would also consider kids.
“The expectation, and this is in the hands of ATAGI, is that they are likely to provide a positive recommendation [for Pfizer]. If they do that, we’re ready to provide that,” Mr Hunt said.
“It is likely that that will be for all of the fourth quarter that these vaccines should be available for kids.”
He added that “school-based vaccination programs are planned with every state or territory”.
Greens leader Adam Bandt said last week it was “urgent” to vaccinate children, noting figures from Sydney’s outbreak showing 25 per cent of recent cases were aged under 20, and 45 per cent under 30.
“Delta is deadly and it’s hitting children and teenagers,” Mr Bandt said.
“Five thousand children and teenagers have already been infected with COVID here. Children and schools across the country have been hit in recent outbreaks. If we don’t include children in the vaccination targets and rollout, more people will get sick and more people will die.”
Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the ABC’s 7.30 last week “we’ve got to get the kids vaccinated because this is a very, very transmissible virus”.