News Coronavirus Coronavirus: The good, the bad, and the unknowns of Australia’s COVID vaccine rollout
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Coronavirus: The good, the bad, and the unknowns of Australia’s COVID vaccine rollout

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Every piece of good news about COVID-19 vaccines (they’re safe, they work well) seems to be matched by a new complication, uncertainty and even new dangers.

It’s a rapidly evolving situation, and The New Daily will be regularly reporting on the state of play.

Our main message is that we are in a strong position in the fight against COVID-19 because of our social distancing measures – which have allowed workers to return to the office, for the economy to have a projected healthy recovery rate and for life overall to have regained some normalcy.

The latest ups and downs

Bad news overnight: The European Union has confirmed it will control coronavirus vaccine exports – including to Australia – raising fears of a global battle as the World Health Organisation warned it was a “worrying trend”.

The EU said it would introduce export controls on various vaccines produced in the bloc in a bid to secure supply for its citizens amid criticism it’s not vaccinating people fast enough.

“The protection and safety of our citizens is a priority and the challenges we now face left us with no choice but to act,” the European Commission said.

Great news: Early Phase III trial results for the dark horse Novovax vaccine show an exciting efficacy rate of nearly 90 per cent. This early analysis of a 15,000-person trial in Britain suggests the Novovax vaccine is almost on par with the coveted Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Even better, Novovax uses a more traditional approach in its vaccine, and won’t require the finicky ultra-cold infrastructure that the Pfizer and Moderna jabs need.

Australia has 51 million doses of Novovax on order.

Not so great news: In a small trial, the efficacy rate of the Novovax jab dropped to about 60 per cent (even less in participants with HIV). In these cases, participants were infected with what’s being called the South African variant, formally known as B.1.351.

It appears to be the most dangerous of the variants of the virus that have emerged in recent weeks. Check out this variants explainer at The Conversation.

Pfizer and Moderna have also reported their vaccines are less effective on this variant.

Pfizer’s big tease

Good news: Australia’s regulator this week approved the Pfizer vaccine for people aged 16 and above. Health Minister Greg Hunt said yesterday that Australia “remains on track for a late February commencement” roll-out.

Australia has secured enough of the Pfizer vaccine to vaccinate five million people.

So far, Australia has secured 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, enough to vaccinate five million people who are deemed high-priority, including front-line health workers .

More good news: After reporting a slow-down in manufacturing, and threats to projected delivery times globally, Pfizer made the teasing announcement on Thursday that Australia’s 10 million-dose allotment could be increased.

Local groups have, of late, grumbled that Australia should have wholly committed to Pfizer despite infrastructure issues.

Hip-hip-hooray we might say … if details weren’t so vague.

Contradictoray news: Pfizer and AstraZeneca warned on Thursday that global supply chain issues had put in doubt the timing of vaccine deliveries to Australia.

This is largely what has prompted the European Union to allow its member states to reject export orders and hoard vaccine doses for use by their own people.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia wouldn’t be held hostage by the European situation. However, Health Department secretary Professor Brendan Murphy told a Senate select COVID-19 committee, “We haven’t got absolute confirmation of that international supply.”

This is now our biggest wait and see issue.

AstraZeneca’s mishandled data

Confusing news: The European Medicines Agency’s expert committee unanimously recommended on Friday that the vaccine be used in people 18 and over.

The German Health Ministry’s vaccine committee said the AstraZeneca vaccine shouldn’t be given to people over the age of 65.

Germany cited a lack of trial data as the problem.

The Sydney Morning Herald called the recommendation a “surprise” – which is a little odd.

The SMH and The Age two weeks ago vigorously reported that local doctor groups were calling the AstraZeneca vaccine a dud, and recommending it shouldn’t be given to anybody, young or old.

Some have criticised Australia’s Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccination strategy.

This a problem of AstraZeneca’s own making.

The complaints from doctor groups were based on data from an interim report published in The Lancet in early December.

The researchers concluded the vaccine was “safe and efficacious … if deployed with high coverage.”

But, as The New Daily reported, the numbers were tricky – and the study had failed to include a sizeable number of older participants.

According to the SMH, Germany giving a thumbs-down to the vaccine being used in older folk “will stoke speculation over whether Australia’s drug regulator might reach a similar conclusion.”

In a statement, AstraZeneca described reports that its COVID-19 vaccine demonstrated a very low efficacy in the elderly as “completely incorrect”.

The company notes that strong immune responses to the vaccine had been shown in elderly participants. And that appears to be true. There just weren’t many of those oldies to satisfy critics.

AstraZeneca told The New Daily two weeks ago that a fuller data set than that found in the Lancet interim report had been submitted to the Therapeutic Goods Administration. It’s not yet publicly available, and more data was being continually generated.

On Friday night, EU regulators authorised AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine for use in adults throughout the European Union.

Which is good news

Because the company will be vulnerable to uncomfortable questions until they publish new and favourable numbers.

Australia has committed to 53.8 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses in 2021, “covering the whole of population requirements.” Twenty million are being produced locally.

The AstraZeneca jab has an efficacy rate of about 60 per cent, until new numbers show otherwise.

The doctors’ grumblings might continue, but the Australian Academy of Science has backed the vaccine, saying in a statement:

“In preventing severe COVID-19 that requires hospitalisation, both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines are equally effective.”

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