Even if the federal government secures regulatory approval for COVID-19 vaccines before its planned timeline of March, it will be up to drug companies to decide whether Australians will receive doses early.
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly said the decision to deliver early vaccinations or not would rest with the pharmaceutical companies as Australia’s order is for the “first quarter” of 2021.
Other countries have already commenced their rollouts, but the Australian government has said it is still working on approvals.
When asked whether Australia could bring forward its order if it secured approvals before March, Prof. Kelly said “ultimately it’s a decision for the company”.
“We have our contracts in place about delivery schedules, they’re the first quarter of this year, and we’ll be binding them to that,” he said.
According to figures released by the Israeli government, about 11.5 per cent of the population have received a first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
Oxford University’s Our World in Data vaccination tracker shows of the 11.4 million vaccinations reported worldwide, China has administered doses to the most people (4.5 million), with the United States providing shots to the second most (4.2 million).
Focus on approval and manufacturing
Prior to a vaccination’s use in Australia, it must be approved for use by health officials. Testing and analysis are currently under way.
Australia has pre-purchased vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech, Oxford/AstraZeneca and Novavax, but the latter won’t be available until later in the year.
The Pfizer vaccines requires -70 degrees Celsius storage and handling and Prof. Kelly said the plan was to obtain the vaccines from overseas just before they were used.
“Once approval comes through, we have had multiple discussions with the company to make sure there’s no delay in getting the vaccine to Australia, so we can complete those last batch testing component of the safety checks,” Prof. Kelly said.
The AstraZeneca vaccines will be made in Australia by CSL after an initial batch arrives from overseas.
“There is no significant delay after approval for that one,” Prof. Kelly said.
“But before that arrives, we have negotiated with the company to have overseas-made vaccine of the same type delivered here.”
Australia not in same position as UK
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said at his New Year’s day press conference that “public health is our number one priority on the vaccine”.
“There’s been in no other advanced jurisdiction an approval given for the [AstraZeneca] vaccine, there have been emergency authorisations given.
“But this is in countries like the UK, where there’s hundreds of people dying a day.
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“Australia is not in that situation. So, we’re being careful to ensure that we dot all the Is and we cross all the Ts to ensure this vaccine is safe and able to be distributed across the Australian population.”
Labor leader Anthony Albanese called for the government to “get a move on” in December.
“If a vaccine is approved in January, why are Australians having to wait until March?” he posted on Twitter.
“Vaccines are our ticket out of this pandemic.”