Prime Minister Scott Morrison called a snap press conference last night to reveal the AstraZeneca jab would no longer be given to any Australian under the age of 50.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) 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.
Around 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 and their only option.
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Mr Morrison was at pains to calm concerns Australia could remain shut off to the rest of the world for years if the population remained largely unvaccinated.
Asked last night if there was a rough timetable for everyone 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 program.
“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 was supposed to be ‘at the front of the queue’
As the world’s vaccine race began to heat up last year, Mr Morrison repeatedly told Australians the nation was “at the front of the queue” when it came to getting supply first.
The Federal 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 around a million have arrived on our 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 was much easier than Pfizer, which needs to be kept at a temperature of -70C.
Secondly, the vaccine could be manufactured locally, at the CSL facility in Melbourne.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd took aim at the various promises made by the Morrison Government on Twitter today.
“So many questions still unanswered,” Mr Rudd said.
Despite the issues around the AstraZeneca vaccine, CSL in Melbourne will continue with its manufacturing.
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,” Mr Murphy said.
“So they will continue to make AstraZeneca.”
Australia’s vaccine program plagued by issues
Mr Morrison’s press conference last night wasn’t the first time he was forced to admit things had changed with the nation’s vaccine rollout.
Earlier this week, Mr Morrison denied he had criticised the European Union 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,” Mr 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.”
Australia was planning on vaccinating four million people by the end of March – but only around one million people have received the jab.
Labor senator Kristina Keneally this morning lashed Mr Morrison for the “debacle”.
“Quite frankly, Scott Morrison should have been securing more vaccine deals earlier last year. The Government failed to do that,” she told the ABC.
“We heard from the Government, for months and months and months, nothing is wrong here, it’s all going fine, all going to plan. Well, 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.
“Now, this does change the game for Australia and not in a good way. Because while we are lucky we don’t have high rates of community transmission at the moment, we know that can change.”
Ms Keneally said it would impact those in the tourism industry and those hoping borders would open.
“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.
Leading infectious diseases expert and director of the Doherty Institute Sharon Lewin said the loss of the AstraZeneca vaccine would change things.
“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 program is safe.
“There’s always small risks and this risk is really small. These have to be done. I think people should reassured that the Government is actually responding to new data and we’ll be getting new data.
“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.”
Mr Morrison this afternoon revealed Australia had secured 20 million more Pfizer vaccines – but the supply would not be available before the fourth quarter of 2021.
The Prime Minister said Australia would now have access to a total of 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine this year.
“The Australian Government has secured overnight an additional 20 million doses of the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in line with the advice of the scientific advisory group on vaccines,” Mr Morrison said on Friday.
“It is anticipated that these additional 20 million doses will be available in quarter four of this year.
“We will obviously be doing everything we can to seek to move that forward where we can but that is very welcome news.”