The coronavirus vaccine that will be rolled out in Britain from next week will not be available to Australians until at least March, the federal Health Minister says.
“Frankly, the work done in the UK will give Australia and the world very important data, very important lessons, both on the rollout and the efficacy of this particular vaccine but vaccines more generally and symmetrically positive development for the world,” Greg Hunt said on Thursday.
Mr Hunt said he expected that process to conclude by the end of January. If the vaccine was found to be safe and effective, then it will be rolled out for Australians by March.
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has been given a fast-tracked green light to supply its vaccine across Britain, which is in the middle of a coronavirus crisis.
People deemed most vulnerable – such as the elderly and those with underlying conditions – will receive the first doses.
While priorities are likely to be similar in Australia, if the jab is approved for use here, some federal politicians could also be among the first to receive it.
Mr Hunt said he had spoken to the federal opposition about where politicians should be in the queue for the long-awaited vaccine.
He said there was a general agreement that while MPs shouldn’t be first, they had a responsibility to demonstrate it was safe.
“None of us want to be jumping the queue but nor do we want to mean there is any lack of confidence,” he said.
“The honest discussion I’ve had … is it may be that there are some from both sides but maybe not as a class.”
Australia’s medicines regulator still wants more data before approving any coronavirus vaccine, despite Britain’s move to start delivering jabs from next week.
Mr Hunt said advice from an expert Australian medical panel was that children did not need to be prioritised for the COVID vaccine.
“It has been indicated that it is unlikely that children should be at the front of the process,” he said.
“There have not been many global tests in relation to children, and safety becomes a paramount concern.”
He confirmed uptake of the vaccine would be voluntary. The Coalition introduced a bill to parliament on Thursday that would make it mandatory for providers to report the details of all vaccinations, including COVID-19, and put them on a national register.
“Reporting about vaccination will be required, which will give us important public health data, and each individual has that data that they can access as they need in regards to their own vaccination history, which is a really important thing for families around Australia and every individual,” Mr Hunt said.
Therapeutic Goods Administration head Professor John Skerritt said it was important to note Britain had gone for an emergency authorisation rather than full approval.
“The situation is very much an emergency in the UK and I can understand totally why they are moving earlier, even with the greater uncertainty,” he said.
He said the British decision meant they would know less about potential adverse side effects of the Pfizer vaccine even as it was being given across the country. But its soaring death toll from the pandemic had prompted Britain to move faster.
Professor Skerritt said three companies had made submissions to Australia about potential vaccines. None yet had submitted final safety and effectiveness data.
“It’s a three-horse race at the moment and any one of those three companies could be the first one to get to the finishing line,” he said.
He expected approval in January and February, provided all information was handed to the TGA in December.
The Pfizer-BioNTech jab is one of four coronavirus vaccines the federal government has deals for.
Professor Skerritt was confident “sophisticated Eskies” would allow the Pfizer vaccine – which must be kept at -70 degrees – to be transported to even the most remote parts of Australia if approved.
“These don’t just keep the beer cold but they keep the vaccine down at dry ice temperature, [and] they are able to be refilled twice,” he said.
Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said rolling out a vaccine by mid-2021 could deliver a $34 billion boost to Australia’s economy.