Australia is accelerating its Covid-19 vaccine rollout amid growing concerns about the threat posed by new virus strains emerging from the UK and South Africa.
However, the government said on Thursday that it was not seeking emergency authorisation of vaccines or “cutting corners” in distribution, a strategy pursued by some countries facing a deadly third wave of cases.
Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister said vaccinations of vulnerable groups would begin in mid-to-late February, rather than in late March as initially planned.
Health workers, border security personnel and aged care residents will be at the front of the queue, with a target of 4m people by the end of March and half the adult population by the middle of the year, he said.
“Australians want a swiftly developed and administered vaccine but more importantly they want a safe one and they don’t want any corners cut,” said Mr Morrison.
“Doing that is critical to public confidence in the vaccine . . . So we haven’t gone to emergency vaccination arrangements.”
Mr Morrison said Australian regulators expected to approve the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine for use this month while the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was forecast to be approved February.
The vaccination programme could not begin sooner because of a two-week delivery waiting time from BioNTech/Pfizer that follows regulatory approval, he said.
Canberra had initially decided that its successful suppression of the virus would allow it to take a “wait and see” approach to vaccinations and learn from experiences abroad.
The new vaccination strategy follows criticism from the opposition Labor party and health experts, who fear fast-spreading variants of the virus could undo the country’s previous achievements in limiting the spread of the virus.
The Australian states of New South Wales and Victoria are meanwhile battling renewed outbreaks of Covid-19. On Thursday, a worker in hotel quarantine in Queensland tested position — the first locally transmitted case in that state for several months.
“Any leakage from hotel quarantine, especially with this new virus strain, which is very, very transmissible, would be disastrous,” said Adrian Esterman, professor of biostatistics at the University of South Australia.
“I’ve been calling on them [the government] for a couple of weeks to bring forward the vaccination. It’s very sensible because if we can vaccinate anyone who is in isolation [hotel quarantine] in New South Wales and Victoria, it could stop the whole thing dead.”
Australia’s cabinet will meet on Friday to discuss whether to ban new arrivals from the UK as well as safety enhancements for its hotel quarantine system because of the new virus strain.
Under the government’s new strategy, children will be among the final group to receive doses of the vaccine, as they are at lower risk of serious illness and there is insufficient data on the effectiveness of the jabs.
Brendan Murphy, head of Australia’s health department, said the vaccination programme would not follow the UK in delaying a second dose of the vaccine for up to 12 weeks to more quickly provide some degree of protection to a greater number of people.
“We’re in a very, very different situation. In the UK they have a significant public health crisis,” he said.
Australia’s decision early in the pandemic to close its international borders and impose strict lockdowns has been praised by health experts for limiting the number of deaths to 909, a fraction of the death toll in the UK, US and smaller European countries such as Belgium.
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