Australia's national Covid-19 vaccine rollout was meant to be ramping up right now. Instead, health authorities have been scrambling after rare blood clots linked to the AstraZeneca jab meant millions of Australians can no longer receive the vaccine the country had been relying on.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison called a snap press conference last night to announce the AstraZeneca jab would no longer be given to any Australian under the age of 50.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) had received evidence from colleagues in Europe that showed there was a small but concerning number of cases where people who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine have developed blood clots. About four to six people out of every million have become sick after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine.
The evidence led to ATAGI advising everyone under the age of 50 yet to be vaccinated to receive an alternative to the AstraZeneca shot, which currently would leave the Pfizer vaccine their only option.
Morrison said yesterday Australia had secured 20 million additional Pfizer vaccines, doubling the country's number of Pfizer doses – but the supply would not be available until the fourth quarter of 2021.
The vaccine shake-up means initial plans to have all Australians vaccinated with their first doses by October are all but dashed.
Morrison was at pains to calm concerns the nation's vaccination timetable could be severely delayed.
Asked last night by reporters if there was a rough timetable for everyone in Australia to be vaccinated, he cut off the question.
"No, we don't. No, we don't. We've learnt this evening, and I think we have to take the time to assess the implications for the programme.
"When we've done that, we may be able to form a view. But I don't think anyone should expect that any time soon. This will take some time to work through the implications."
Australia's vaccine rollout plagued by issues
As the world's vaccine race began to heat up last year, Morrison repeatedly told Australians the nation was "at the front of the queue" when it came to getting supply first.
The government also repeatedly said it was securing millions of doses of various vaccines to ensure we weren't putting "all our eggs in one basket".
But the government only ordered 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine – enough for 10 million Australians to get their two doses. And of those, only about a million have arrived on Australian shores.
Meanwhile, talks with Moderna, which developed another vaccine that has been successfully rolled out across the US and parts of Europe, broke down last year. Australia is still expecting 51 million Novavax jabs later in the year and is looking to see if it can bring other vaccines forward.
But the delays meant Australia was relying heavily on the AstraZeneca vaccine, firstly because the logistics around transporting and administering the AstraZeneca vaccine were much easier than Pfizer, which needs to be kept at a temperature of -70C, and secondly because the vaccine could be manufactured locally, at the CSL facility in Melbourne.
Federal Health Secretary Brendan Murphy said last night the nation was still desperate for AstraZeneca and the jabs were perfectly safe for older Australians.
"We still have a big need for AstraZeneca. It is going to be a really important vaccine to vaccinate a significant proportion of the population," Murphy said. "So they will continue to make AstraZeneca."
Australia's vaccine rollout is already behind schedule. The government had initially planned on vaccinating four million people by the end of March – but only around one million people have now received their jabs. The government has said Australia's low infection rates meant the rollout did not require urgency.
There are also supply issues with the European Union. Earlier this week, Morrison denied he had criticised the EU after 3.1 million doses already ordered by Australia were stuck overseas.
"Any suggestion that I, in any way, made any criticism of the European Union yesterday would be completely incorrect," Morrison told reporters. "I simply stated a fact: that 3.1 million of the contracted vaccines that we had been relying upon in early January when we'd set out a series of targets did not turn up in Australia. That is just a simple fact."
Critics lash the government
Labor senator Kristina Keneally yesterday chided the Prime Minister for the issues with Australia's vaccine rollout.
"Quite frankly, Scott Morrison should have been securing more vaccine deals earlier last year. The government failed to do that," she told the ABC.
"They didn't get the four million Australians vaccinated by the end of March, like they promised. Australia is not at the front of the queue, globally, like Scott Morrison promised. We have seen problems with securing enough vaccines for Australians. And now we have a Prime Minister who late last night revealed that the main vaccine we have in Australia, the AstraZeneca vaccine, is not recommended by medical experts for people under the age of 50."
Keneally said the move away from AstraZeneca reliance would "change the game for Australia, and not in a good way", and industries hoping for an early opening of Australia's borders would be disappointed.
"This just means that Australians are going to wait months and months, possibly even another year, before life resembles anything like normal. That failure sits on Scott Morrison's head," she said.
Labor Leader Anthony Albanese labelled the AstraZeneca development a "debacle" and criticised the government for not buying a wider range of vaccine candidates.
"Labor was warning for a long period of time that we needed to do what international best practice told us we should do, to have access to five or six vaccines," he said.
"The fact that we now have such uncertainty about the rollout is a direct result of an arrogant government that was too focused on the 24-hour media cycle and not focused on what Australia needed."
Leading infectious diseases expert and director of the Doherty Institute Sharon Lewin said the loss of the AstraZeneca vaccine would change things for the country.
"The plans to redirect Pfizer to the under 50s is a very good one, but it will slow things down," she said. "But these things have to be done. We have to ensure that a vaccine programme is safe."
Lewin said the risks with the AstraZeneca remain very small but that "people should reassured that the government is actually responding to new data" and the advice of Australia's medical experts.
"It's a difficult thing to deal with and understand but we'll be getting new data on all these vaccines as the rollouts progress," she said.