Australia’s sluggish COVID-19 vaccine rollout could damage its ability to respond to virus mutations later this year, Labor says.
Australia’s strategy was rocked by news the AstraZeneca vaccine, set to make up the bulk of the rollout, was linked to blood clotting in people aged under 50.
But Labor’s health spokesman Mark Butler says with Australia only passing one million vaccinations this week, the country already trails well behind the UK and US in its attempt to immunise the population.
And with highly contagious variants already emanating from the UK, Brazil and South Africa, Mr Butler warned the UK’s efficient rollout meant it would be better prepared to respond as the virus mutated.
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“We think there is a time imperative here,” he told the ABC’s Insiders.
“It is important that we get the current generation of vaccines into people’s arms so that we’re ready for potential booster shots, as early as later this year, to deal with the variants or the mutations that are spreading all around the world.”
Both the UK and US suffered devastating death tolls and were forced to grant emergency approval to initiate their rollouts, which Health Department secretary Brendan Murphy said accounted for their speed.
“Fortunately we haven’t been in that emergency situation but our program is going well and ramping up, along with many similar countries,” he said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has argued Australia’s success in avoiding a similar fate meant the vaccine rollout was “not a race”.
But with government initially aiming to have four million people vaccinated by earlier this month, Mr Butler said the Australian rollout’s “glacial pace” would damage it in the long term.
“The US is putting four million doses into people’s arms every single day. The UK is at the 38 million, we are at one million,” Mr Butler said.
“It needs to happen more effectively, because the strength of our economic recovery depends, is inextricably linked to, the speed and effectiveness of this vaccine rollout.
“This is a race in health terms and in economic terms.”
Australia’s rollout plans were thrown into chaos by revelations the AstraZeneca vaccine was linked to a rare form of blood clotting, prompting authorities to place an advisory on its use on those aged under 50.
Confirming the news on Thursday evening, Mr Morrison said the government had always warned of unforeseen circumstances.
The Prime Minister announced the next day Australia had struck a deal for an additional 20 million doses of the Pfizer jab, to be delivered later this year.
But Mr Butler accused the government of making Australia over-reliant on a small number of options.
“The UK is also dealing with the fact that they’re not going to be giving AstraZeneca to young people,” he said.
“But they’ve been able to substitute the Moderna vaccine, a highly effective state of the art mRNA vaccine, and will soon be substituting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as well.”
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) did not demand deals be struck with Moderna or Johnson & Johnson, which was administered in a single dose.
Dr Murphy confirmed the government was “exploring” a deal with Johnson & Johnson, but said the most effective strategy was an uptake in Pfizer deliveries.
“Had we had a contract with Moderna we would have had not very much delivered at this time, at the moment. So we’re focusing on increasing our Pfizer; the two vaccines are very similar,” he told reporters on Friday.
Mr Butler did not respond directly when asked whether he was criticising the official advice, but said “the safest thing to do would be to have more deals on the table, not less”.