News Coronavirus Michael Pascoe: Why we should export our first vaccine supplies

Michael Pascoe: Why we should export our first vaccine supplies

We should export our first doses of vaccine to people waiting to come home, writes Michael Pascoe.
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The federal government has confirmed who will be first to receive COVID-19 vaccinations – and it has missed the most important group.

Acting chief medical officer Paul Kelly has rolled out the usual suspects for the front of the vaccination queue – the elderly, those with underlying health problems and essential workers.

He did add one other class: International airline crew. (I wonder if he was prompted by the source of the latest two COVID cases in New South Wales.)

But airline crews are only a subset of the group we most need to be vaccinated: The possible source of contamination now that we have effective local elimination.

We should export our first doses of vaccine to the people waiting to come home.

For such people overseas, it would not be necessary to wait for the Therapeutic Goods Administration approval required here – it’s already being injected in the UK.

According to a report by the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences on Tuesday, it is not clear yet whether the vaccine will stop or reduce transmission of the disease – the vaccine’s first job is to stop people getting seriously ill from the virus.

Hopefully that uncertainty would be resolved by the time Australia could organise to have would-be returnees vaccinated.

Get those people to London or other hubs still accepting people, wait there while the vaccination process runs its course, fly home in government-organised charter flights with vaccinated air crew, combine it with the rapid antigen test for COVID as advocated by Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, and we’d have a greatly reduced level of risk, perhaps enabling more quarantining at home.

Those unwilling to be vaccinated can stay where they are, or at least drop to the back of the queue of would-be travellers and wear the cost and delay of hotel quarantine.

Eliminate the source of possible infection in Australia and shots for the elderly and infirm don’t matter so much. Enforce “no jab, no fly” – as was taken-for-granted back in the day of having those yellow health passports – and domestic risk is greatly reduced.

The same process could be used to safely restart our international education industry.

Risk is not eliminated though, with the jury out on how quickly a vaccinated person might be re-infected.

The great Hobart Mercury headline of March, “We have a moat and we’re not afraid to use it”, still applies to Australia and remains the main reason why we have been able to get on top of the epidemic, unlike the vast majority of nations.

Prioritising would-be returnees would mean more direct government action, but if we can fly a former government minister all over the place for probably pointless job interviews…

CORRECTION, DECEMBER 17, 2020: An earlier version of this story did not include the AAHMS report, which says it’s uncertain whether the available vaccine prevents transmission.