An extra 10 million doses of the world-leading Pfizer vaccine have been secured for Australia, with Health Minister Greg Hunt “quietly” working behind the scenes to double the number of COVID jabs available.
Australia is now in line to receive 20 million doses of the jab, enough for 10 million people, up from the 10 million doses secured previously.
It’s also been announced that every person in Australia will be eligible for a free jab, including refugees, asylum seekers, and those on temporary protection or bridging visas.
“This additional purchase gives us additional insurance and additional options,” Health Department chief Professor Brendan Murphy said at Parliament House on Thursday.
“We are now in the wonderful position of having three vaccines rolling out this year.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said advice from the vaccine companies still had Pfizer on track to deliver first doses to Australia in late February and AstraZeneca from early March. But questions still remain about exactly when all doses will arrive, with Pfizer committing to delivering the full contingent only by the end of 2021.
The New Daily has contacted Pfizer for comment.
“We’ll have plentiful supplies and we’ll be scaling up with the aim to vaccinate the population by October. I am incredibly pleased with the position we’re in with vaccines at the moment,” Professor Murphy said.
The Pfizer vaccine was approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in January. The TGA this week announced there was “no specific risk” to elderly patients, after concern over a small number of deaths of very frail people in Norway after receiving the jab.
Clinical trials found the Pfizer vaccine has a 95 per cent efficacy rate.
On the advice of the Scientific Industry Technical Advisory Group on Vaccine lead by Professor Brendan Murphy, the Australian Government has secured an additional 10 million doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. pic.twitter.com/OHGZ0eepUx
— Greg Hunt (@GregHuntMP) February 4, 2021
Mr Hunt said the government’s scientific advisers had recommended confirming an option to buy more doses in the 10 million-dose contract with Pfizer, if it was approved by the TGA.
“They advised from the outset that we should build an option… We did that quietly, behind the scenes. Once the TGA approved the Pfizer vaccine, we triggered that option,” the health minister said.
Pfizer had previously advised it could offer only 10 million doses.
The New Daily was told by senior government sources that the doubling of that number came after intense lobbying and negotiation between the Health Department and Pfizer, and that Australia did not pay a large premium for more doses, as other countries have.
But questions still swirl over exactly when the Pfizer jabs will arrive. Pfizer has committed to delivering only about 80,000 doses in late February, but Mr Hunt said more information was expected shortly.
“We’ll receive additional advice from the company. I spoke to them today. They’re still looking to provide advice in the middle of the month globally,” he said.
“But the guarantee is that all of those doses will be here during the course of 2021.”
Issues with production and delivery from vaccine production plants in Europe have caused fears in recent weeks of a delayed global rollout. However, Mr Hunt said he was confident there had since been “significant improvement”, and that some issues were being resolved.
Professor Murphy said the Pfizer jab would be offered to those “most vulnerable” to infection, such as border and quarantine workers, frontline health workers, and aged-care residents and staff.
“The majority of the population on our plan will have access to the AstraZeneca vaccines,” he said.
“In the main, there won’t be a choice, and I think both vaccines are extremely good, and I would be very happy to have either of them.”
Mr Morrison said he hoped to receive a vaccination in a public setting, to help inspire public confidence in the jab as other world leaders have done. He expected to receive the Pfizer vaccine.
“It is the big agenda item for us, obviously, because it provides the pathway to so many of the other things we wish to achieve this year,” he said.
Labor’s health spokesman Mark Butler said the opposition welcomed the new doses, but again called for more information about how the vaccines would be distributed.
“When will these supplies actually land in Australia? How long will batch testing take? And when will we actually see needles in people’s arms?” he said.
“There’s no detail around the online booking system that Greg Hunt has said will be the single entry point for people to make arrangements to receive the vaccine.”
“We’re into February already; we need to start to get this detail.”
Australia is also relying on 50 million doses of the less effective AstraZeneca vaccine, which will be manufactured in Melbourne throughout 2021.
Mr Morrison said the nation had access to 150 million doses of vaccines across the portfolio of drugs. The extra doses would also help Australia in “doing our bit in this part of the world”, he said, including helping Pacific neighbours secure doses.
Great to speak to US President Joe Biden again today. We discussed our many shared interests in the Indo-Pacific and agreed the importance of technology partnerships in reducing emissions towards net zero and driving economic growth, and keen to meet at an early opportunity 🇦🇺🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/2AjOobFBgF
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) February 4, 2021
In the press conference, Mr Morrison also revealed he had spoken with US President Joe Biden earlier on Thursday, for the first time since the American election. The PM described it as “a warm and engaging call”, and said the leaders spoke of the alliance between the two nations as “the anchor for peace and security in the region”.
Mr Morrison said he had invited Mr Biden to Australia in 2021, to mark the 70th anniversary of the ANZUS alliance in September.