Questions have been raised about Australia’s reliance on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in the fight against COVID-19, with calls for the Federal Government to secure more doses of higher efficacy jabs instead.
The criticism prompted the nation’s former chief medical officer, now head of the Department of Health, Professor Brendan Murphy, to defend the AstraZeneca vaccine, telling 7.30 he would be “very pleased to have it”.
Australian healthcare workers will start getting their COVID-19 vaccines this month, with authorities setting the ambitious target of having the entire country inoculated by October.
“I don’t think Australia has managed to secure enough vaccines to be comfortable, we really do need to diversify our vaccine portfolio,” said Zoe Hyde, an epidemiologist at the University of Western Australia.
The rollout will begin with 10 million doses of the Pfizer jabs — with two injections per person needed — following the recent provisional approval of the vaccine by Australia’s drug regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
Also in the pipeline are a further 54 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is currently being manufactured locally by CSL in Melbourne and is still being assessed by regulators.
Australia has also signed an advanced purchase agreement with American biotech company Novavax to supply 51 million doses later in the year.
What about Moderna?
The vaccine strategy aims to hedge Australia’s bets across multiple vaccine technologies — the Pfizer vaccine uses new mRNA technology, Novavax is a protein-based vaccine and the Oxford-AstraZeneca is a viral vector vaccine.
But some have questioned why Australia is relying on the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab for almost half the nation’s vaccine supply so far, given its efficacy ranges between 62 and 90 per cent, unlike the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which are around 95 per cent.
“Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines are high efficacy vaccines and therefore stand a good chance of allowing us to achieve herd immunity in Australia,” Dr Hyde said.
“In contrast, the AstraZeneca vaccine has an efficacy of only 62 per cent, which means we’re unlikely to achieve herd immunity if we were to use that vaccine.”
According to a study of vaccine strategies by researchers at the University of New South Wales, Australia could achieve herd immunity if it inoculates 66 per cent of the population with a vaccine that has 90 per cent efficacy — such as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
However, the researchers also found a vaccine with less than 70 efficacy cannot achieve herd immunity and “will result in ongoing risk of outbreaks”.
“I think Australia urgently needs to diversify our vaccine portfolio. We’ve done well to secure the Pfizer vaccine and the Novavax vaccine in particular, but we need to have more options in our portfolio,” Dr Hyde said.
While the efficacy differs between the two vaccines Australia has on the way — AstraZeneca and Pfizer — Dr Murphy said it is important to note that both are equally effective in preventing severe COVID-19 that requires hospitalisation.
“We don’t know whether any of the vaccines will give us herd immunity. All we know at the moment is that the vaccines are very good at protecting against clinical COVID disease,” he said.
‘We really dropped the ball’
Economist Professor Richard Holden, a professor of economics at UNSW Business School, believes Australia should have acquired more leading vaccine candidates — such Moderna’s jab and Johnson and Johnson’s one-shot vaccine — regardless of the cost.
“I think we really dropped the ball on getting the best vaccines, like trying to sort of pinch pennies and pick and choose one from each category of vaccine, rather than buying all the leading contenders,” he said.
“I think we should be trying to get more of the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine — the US just in the last week or two got an extra 100 million doses of those two vaccines.”
Last week, Moderna said it believes its COVID-19 vaccine protects against emerging variant strains of the virus found in Britain and South Africa, but would study the effectiveness of a third booster shot as added precaution against the latter variant.
The Federal Government is remaining tight-lipped about why it’s negotiations with Moderna have stalled, despite growing calls for Australia to order the vaccine.
In January, when Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly was asked why there was no deal, he said “a contract takes two parties to sign… we have continued conversations with Moderna, and it needs their agreement to sign such a contract”.
Moderna and Health Minister Greg Hunt did not respond to 7.30’s questions about what terms and conditions the parties could not agree on, or why.
When asked on 7.30, Professor Murphy said “we will continue to explore our vaccine portfolio and may make additional purchases in the future, but we can’t detail the commercial in confidence discussions with all the vaccine companies.”
Australia is well placed
Mark Butler, Labor’s health spokesperson, said the Australian public needs more transparency on the deals being negotiated with drug makers.
“We need some more information about how negotiations are progressing between the Government and other medicine companies to diversify the supply of vaccines,” he said.
Mr Hunt declined an interview with 7.30 but in a statement said “it would be deeply concerning if the Opposition sought to undermine confidence in vaccines supported by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and the Academy of Science”.
John Skerrick, the deputy secretary of the Department of Health, said despite a lack of deals with some leading vaccine candidates, Australia was well placed in the vaccine race because it could make the AstraZeneca vaccine locally, and had other promising vaccines in its portfolio.
“Australia is well covered, especially because for a country of our size we actually will have a dynamic local manufacturing environment for the AstraZeneca vaccine, and of course, we also have further commitments for the Novavax vaccine,” he said.
“There will be improvements in these vaccines. Companies and researchers have decided that it’s worth developing the second, third and fourth generation vaccines.”
Epidemiologist Sharon Lewin, the director of the Doherty Institute, said Australia was in a fortunate position that it did not need to rush vaccine purchases, like Europe and the US.
“We certainly need a vaccine to see the end of the pandemic here in Australia, but every other country that’s scrambling to get vaccines and getting them into their communities are doing that to save lives,” she said.
“Vaccines are there to stop people going to hospital and overwhelming their health care system, but we’re not in that position in Australia. We need to get people vaccinated, but we have a little bit of time up our sleeve.”