In a “critical and very exciting milestone” for Australia, the medical regulator has given the green light for the local production of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“This decision locks in Australia’s sovereign vaccine manufacturing security and provides security of vaccine supply and safety for Australians,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Sunday night after the Therapeutic Goods Administration confirmed its decision.
The announcement came on the eve of phase 1B of the national vaccination rollout. From Monday, a further six million Australians are being encouraged to roll up their sleeves and get the shot.
That was the good news.
The news the federal government wasn’t celebrating was that it was still scrambling to get its online COVID vaccine booking system running while doctors worry about limited supplies. That was before wild weather slowed the national rollout.
One rural GP who spoke to The New Daily said some clinics’ vaccine allocations were “bugger all”, and another said their waiting list had already blown out to more than 600 patients.
- Use the Department of Health’s eligibility tool to find out if you’re eligible to get your coronavirus vaccine under phase 1B
Some clinics listed on the government’s booking website still haven’t received any doses, while others have been inundated with phone calls from Australians keen book an appointment.
Adding to that is heavy flooding across NSW that has blocked roads, uprooted houses and caused major delays of coronavirus vaccine deliveries to GP clinics.
On Sunday, deputy chief medical officer Professor Michael Kidd conceded there would be “inevitable delays” of deliveries to NSW clinics affected by flood waters.
“Some of the practices themselves have had to close as a result of the flooding and severe weather conditions,” he said.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian described the flooding in Western Sydney as a one-in-a-half-century event, with at least 16 local government areas declared a national disaster.
Flooding or not, the vaccine rollout was already running behind.
More than 250,000 virus jabs have been administered in Australia – a long way short the four million Prime Minister Scott Morrison said would be completed by the end of March.
The TGA’s approval of Melbourne’s CSL-produced AstraZeneca vaccine will boost national supply to one million doses a week.
However, despite this leap, Professor Kidd said authorities planned only to give out 250,000 vaccine doses this week, and then 400,000 in coming weeks.
In many instances, GP clinics will receive just 50 doses a week.
Professor Kidd stressed “not all practices will be commencing the rollout on Monday”, with start dates staggered during the week.
“There are other deliveries scheduled for the days ahead, and practices are aware of when they’re expecting to receive their initial doses of the vaccine,” he said.
One GP working in rural NSW said 50 doses a week was “bugger all”.
“Lots of GPs want to be involved and help, but the federal government makes it challenging,” he told The New Daily.
“There will be many patients who we want to vaccinate ASAP that will likely be waiting a few weeks. Many small practices will be losing money vaccinating because they can’t work with economy of scale.”
Another GP said he had received a shipment of 80 vaccine doses last week, and have ordered 80 doses a week for the next month.
“We’re trying to order as many as possible, but not sure when they will arrive,” said the doctor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“We have a list of about 600 to 700 people waiting at the moment.”
The GP also complained that he was also “losing money” doing vaccinations, compared to taking regular bookings for appointments, and had to invest in new equipment such as fridges, furniture, signs and consent forms.
“We would be far better off financially if we just kept seeing regular patients,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if more clinics pull out because of the cost.”
Last week, the government’s COVID vaccine booking website crashed on its first day, leaving doctors’ phone lines jammed with people calling their GPs directly.
Professor Kidd said the website had since been updated to include booking links to more than 300 GP listings.
But that still leaves about 700 GP online listings with no online contact option – only phone numbers.
One clinic on the Gold Coast told TND “it’s been crazy” trying to keep up with phone calls from people trying to book a vaccine appointment.
‘Every day we wait costs us money’
Until a large number of Australians are vaccinated against COVID-19, we won’t be able to reopen our economy, said Richard Holden, Professor of Economics at UNSW Business School.
“If there’s an outbreak, we’re at serious risk,” he said, criticising Australia’s slow vaccine rollout program.
“We’re taking a big economic gamble and a big public health gamble.”
Professor Holden said even though Australia was in a much better position than Europe, the US or Britain – where dangerous new variants are spreading – badly hit industries such as hospitality and tourism are still losing billions of dollars.
“Of course, it’s good that we’re not like Europe because of how we managed things in 2020, but it’s precisely this sense of purpose and urgency in 2020 that made us so successful,” he said.
“Every day we wait costs us money and puts lives at risk. It’s a race against the clock and we should be in a hurry.”