Why Is Australia So Far Behind on the Vaccines?

COVID vaccine

News this week revealed that Australia has missed its March 31st target for the vaccine rollout by 3.4 million doses. Considering the target was 4 million, that’s a pretty huge undershoot, and not one the government looks likely to correct any time soon.

The new target is 4 million adults in Australia having received at least the first shot of either the Pfizer or the AstraZeneca vaccine by the end of this month. However, in order to do so, Australia’s chief health officer, Prof Paul Kelly, stated on Tuesday that we would already need to have administered a million doses if we were to be on track for that next goal.

State leaders and the general public have been expressing frustration with how the vaccine rollout has been undertaken thus far, not to mention GPs and health professionals.

Australia already has a history of shifting the goalposts and “managing expectations” when it comes to the vaccine. From almost the very start, we’ve been on the back foot, only managing to secure 3 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine until reaching a last-minute deal with the UK to get hold of 3.8 million doses of the AstraZeneca one.

Scott Morrison made the bold statement that the whole country would be vaccinated by October before soon “clarifying” that statement by saying every adult in the country would have at least the first shot of the vaccine by the end of October. Now, it’s looking likely that we won’t all be vaccinated until early 2022.

Considering the UK is has now vaccinated over half of the population, the question remains just why Australia is so behind on its vaccine rollout.

Technically Not Our Fault

While Europe argues about who should get the vaccine, and other countries struggle to locate the doses they need, Australia has actually secured more vaccine than almost any other country per capita. We’ve so far purchased 140 million doses which is enough for every single person to have five shots. Not that we need that many.

That’s because we have the capacity, and have secured the rights, to manufacture the AstraZeneca vaccine at home. The Pfizer dose too has been coming through at a rate of about 140,000 doses each week.

Those Pfizer vaccines have been designated for the people in the 1a category of the vaccine rollout – meaning front line medical staff, aged care, and hotel quarantine workers. Everyone else will be getting the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Now, the target of hitting four million doses was based on the belief that we would have the first 3 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine by the end of February. That didn’t happen because Italy blocked the export of vaccines being made in the country designated for Australia. Italy is currently dealing with a catastrophic third wave of COVID and it, much like every other country in Europe struggling with the same problem, is wondering why vaccines being made in the EU are being shipped elsewhere.

That means that we ended up only receiving 735,000 of the contracted 3.8 million doses. Australia has since given up trying to wrangle more vaccine from Europe and instead decided to rely on manufacturing it at home.

Since it’s technically a new medication, it had to pass the rigorous standards of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) which didn’t happen until March 21.

A lot of the above is out of our hands and the government can be forgiven for getting caught up in the tussle in Europe. However, that doesn’t explain the full story.

Poor Management

Other countries have gone for mass vaccination attempts – turning pharmacies, dentists, vets, and even cathedrals into vaccinations centres – Australia has gone for a GP-led approach. The thinking here is that GPs will know their patients and their underlying health conditions and people can book in to get the vaccine in an orderly fashion.

GPs up and down the country have gone out and purchased the expensive fridges required to store the vaccines at sub-zero temperatures in order to keep them viable. And yet they’ve announced that they haven’t yet received many, if any, vaccines.

This sounds like a supply chain issue but it is likely more of a logistical one. NSW announced on Wednesday that it had only distributed 96,273 doses of the 190,610 supplied by the Commonwealth.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard accused the federal government of undermining his state’s vaccine rollout by “dumping” 45,000 doses on them without warning. If medical professionals don’t know when medical supplies will arrive, they can hardly plan adequately for distribution.

Others have accused Queensland – where the AstraZeneca vaccine is being manufactured – of hoarding the vaccine, although they have hit back and said they need to know how much they will have in order to properly distribute it. Queensland has said it does not trust the consistency of supply coming from the federal government.

Despite all of this, federal health minister Greg Hunt insisted on Wednesday that “the national vaccination program is accelerating exactly as intended in the manner that was intended at the time it was intended.”

We’re still looking at fairly opaque figures coming from the government as to how much vaccine has been distributed. Until we know where it is and who has it, it’s hard to know when the rollout will start to ramp up.

It’s Not a Priority

Finally, the federal government has stated that the vaccine rollout is not a question of speed or a race against the clock as in other countries. The UK began its vaccination programme in December, a full two months before us, because that country is in crisis and ours is not.

That being said, the recent outbreak in Brisbane, which has now spread to Bryon Bay and is threatening to cancel Easter, has shown that we are not out of the woods yet. The complacency we have witnessed thus far is understandable as it’s worth getting this right. However, Australia is not immune to further outbreaks and getting the vaccine through to the whole country is the only way we’re going to conquer this mess.

Right now, Australia stands behind Bangladesh, Rwanda, and Indonesia – countries with far less developed medical infrastructures than our own – in the number of people vaccinated. That ought to be a wake-up call.

The current targets have been updated  – with six million people intended to be vaccinated by mid-May – but it remains to be seen whether the government will learn from this huge failing and start the rollout in earnest.

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