Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under fire for “appealing” to Australia’s expert immunisation panel to lower its AstraZeneca vaccine age recommendation.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) recommends AstraZeneca be given to people older than 60 due to a risk of extremely rare but serious blood clots that reduces with age.
Mr Morrison, who is facing increasing pressure over his government’s bungled vaccine rollout, has blamed ATAGI’s age limit for causing a “big problem” that has stalled national vaccine uptake.
Speaking to reporters in Canberra on Wednesday, he revealed he has been making a “constant appeal” to ATAGI for changed recommendations.
But doctors backed the advisory body.
Australian Medical Association vice-president Chris Moy said “ATAGI should not be attacked at all”.
“These are good people who give up their time to provide good advice,” Dr Moy told ABC TV on Wednesday afternoon.
“The job of the government is to appoint these people. Get them to give the advice in a cold, hard fashion and go with it given the circumstances.”
Dr Moy said he agreed the AstraZeneca jab was “a really good vaccine”, and that ATAGI’s recommendation was “conservative”.
“You have to look at the detail of what ATAGI has said, which has been good advice and it’s recommended in a non-COVID situation to have Pfizer under 60,” he said.
“We’re in a different situation and governments need to step up and say this is our independent advice but we call the shots on this.”
OK, so should you get the AstraZeneca jab?
It’s all about the risks and benefits, which differ depending on your age and circumstances.
The balance between risks and benefits depends on your risk of being exposed to COVID (which may vary based on your job or location) and on your risk of bad outcomes (like death) should you get COVID.
Age seems the most important risk factor for these outcomes, but other conditions appear important too, including heart disease, lung disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer.
If you’re under 60 and want to be vaccinated but there’s no Pfizer available, you should speak to your GP.
Where the confusion started
In June, the PM encouraged people under 40 to speak to their doctor about receiving AstraZeneca.
About 32,000 people in the age bracket have received that jab since he made the comments in an evening news conference.
The government previously used a late-night announcement to reveal ATAGI changed its AstraZeneca recommendation from 50 and above to over-60s.
Mr Morrison became defensive on Wednesday when asked if the government’s AstraZeneca messages led to increased vaccine hesitancy.
“I cannot control what ATAGI advises,” he said.
He said the suggestion implied the government should have refused medical advice despite his appeals for the recommendation to be reconsidered.
Senior Labor frontbencher Tony Burke said the Prime Minister risked a perception he was pressuring the expert immunisation panel.
Mr Burke said independent institutions were critical to public confidence in vaccines.
“We undermine the independence of ATAGI at out peril,” he told Sky News.
Mr Morrison also refused to apologise for the slow rollout and denied it was to blame for lockdowns affecting more than half of Australia’s population.
“Australians just want us to get it right,” he said.
“No country has got their pandemic response 100 per cent. I think Australians understand that.”
Just 14.5 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated, with the nation lagging behind most of the developed world.