The head of the Department of Health has blamed uncertainty around local production and international supply issues as the government appears set to miss its stated vaccine rollout targets.
- The government wanted to vaccinate 4 million Australians by April and the entire country by October
- Slower-than-expected deliveries and uncertain local production is making those targets look difficult to achieve
- Health officials have walked back those targets in a Senate committee today
The government announced a target in January for vaccinating 4 million vulnerable Australians by early April.
Health secretary Brendan Murphy told a Senate committee that 125,000 people, including 30,000 in aged care, had been vaccinated since the rollout began in the last week of February, leaving the government likely to fall short of the target.
He said that the rollout was going “as quickly as we can safely do with the available vaccines”.
“It will be impossible to predict exactly when we will hit 4 million until we know what the CSL production capability will be like, what the further international supplies will be like,” Professor Murphy said.
“We thought we would get 3.8 million AstraZeneca doses, and for issues that I think the committee is well aware of with sovereign vaccine issues in Europe, we’ve only had 700-odd thousand AstraZeneca vaccines which we’ve deployed as soon as they’ve been tested.”
The government has ordered vaccines produced overseas from Pfizer and AstraZeneca, and it has also arranged for the AstraZeneca vaccination to be produced by biologics manufacturer CSL in Melbourne.
Last week, Health Minister Greg Hunt rejected the potential for delay after Europe blocked the export of one AstraZeneca shipment to Australia.
“We are very clear that this does not affect the pace of the rollout,” he said.
Discussion about risk after phase 1 flagged
The government’s vaccine rollout strategy earmarks workers in quarantine, border, health care and aged care, along with older and vulnerable Australians, for vaccinations within phase 1a and phase 1b — all up almost 7 million Australians.
Professor Murphy refused to say when the government was aiming to have these groups vaccinated.
But he described reaching phase 2 as an important milestone.
“To complete the first clinical milestone, which is the completion of all of phase 1 … that will mean we will have effectively protected the most vulnerable Australians and so we should be in a position to have a discussion as a nation,” Professor Murphy said.
Later, Labor senator Katy Gallagher asked about whether the “discussion” related to the speed of the rollout or something else:
Gallagher: “When you said earlier you would have a discussion after phase 1 was complete, is that what you’re talking about?”
Murphy: “When we’ve got the great majority of people in phase 1 covered … the risk of community transmission becomes materially less because the chance of people getting really sick and being admitted to hospital in intensive care or tragically dying is substantially reduced. That’s a time I suspect that [Chief Medical Officer] Paul [Kelly] and his colleagues at the AHPPC [medical advisers the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee], National Cabinet will have a discussion about our risk tolerance. Do we feel we need to be so risk-averse in our public health responses?”
Gallagher: “You’re talking there about social distancing?”
Murphy: “All of those things, yeah.”
The government had announced a goal of offering vaccinations to all adult Australians by October, but it now appears that may only be an initial vaccination.
A second dose will be given to recipients after 12 weeks to ensure longer-term efficacy.
“We may or may not get everyone to have two doses by the end of October,” Professor Murphy said.
“I don’t think it’s that important, the ultimate objective is still on track.”
Professor Murphy argued those who had received the initial vaccine would be protected, delivering on the October commitment.
Department of Health official Caroline Edwards said there were a few things that could change the timetable.
“Our planning remains to the end of October, but I think we’ve been very clear that agility and adjustability is important,” she said.
She also suggested the rollout would continue into 2022.
“My point about 12 weeks from October was simply the maths … if someone gets their first dose on the 31st of October, then they will be due for their second dose 12 weeks after that.”