In a promising step in the fight against the pandemic, real-world data from Britain and Israel has shown COVID-19 vaccines are working better than expected.
It came as federal Health Minister Greg Hunt, former prime minister Julia Gillard and Department of Health secretary Brendan Murphy were among the first Australians to receive the AstraZeneca jab on Sunday.
“Particularly to Australian women, can I say, please get the vaccine,” Ms Gillard said after receiving the jab.
Her appeal followed the publication of an ANU study, which found vaccine scepticism in Australia was most pronounced among young women.
From March 22, more than 1000 general practices will start offering the vaccines as part of Phase 1b of Australia’s vaccine rollout plan.
In the weeks that follow, the program will scale up to include more than 4500 practices across the country.
“This will ensure an efficient and equitable distribution of vaccines across the country,” Mr Hunt said on Sunday.
More than 130 respiratory clinics and more than 300 Aboriginal community-controlled health services will support Phase 1b, which includes adults aged 70 and older, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults, essential workers, and people with a disability or underlying medical condition.
And early data shows the vaccines are working.
In Israel, the world’s highest-vaccinating country, a large study using data from nearly 1.2 million people (excluding nursing home residents and health workers) found Pfizer’s vaccine was 92 per cent effective at protecting against asymptomatic COVID-19.
Researchers found the vaccine also prevented severe disease from seven days after the second dose, which was consistent with results seen in randomised clinical trials.
The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, included data from nearly 80,000 vaccinated people aged over 70 – a group at high risk of serious illness and death.
Meanwhile in England, figures in a research paper from Public Health England – released last week but awaiting peer review – showed the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines were highly effective in reducing COVID infections among people aged 70 and older.
Since the study began in January, protection against symptomatic COVID four weeks after the first dose ranged between 57 per cent and 61 per cent for the Pfizer vaccine and between 60 per cent and 73 per cent for the AstraZeneca inoculation.
Although the data is welcome news, Australia will have to wait months before experiencing similar results.
Our unenviable position in the vaccine queue was reaffirmed on Friday, when Italian officials blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine from coming to Australia.
Italy’s foreign ministry said in a statement that Australia was not considered to be “a vulnerable country” and that the decision was made due to the “persistence of the vaccine shortage in the EU and Italy, the delays in supply of AstraZeneca vaccines to the EU and Italy, and the very high number of doses” that the company wanted to export.