Medical professionals are urging the Morrison Government to pause the planned rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but other experts disagree.
Doubts are being raised about the ability of the vaccine, developed in co-operation with the University of Oxford, to control the coronavirus after Phase III clinical trial results published in The Lancet last month, showed it is only 62 per cent effective in preventing COVID-19.
The Australian and New Zealand Society for Immunology believes this may not be effective enough to generate herd immunity and it would be wise not to rely on it to control the virus in Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Based on current trial evidence, Immunology Society president Professor Stephen Turner believes the vaccine should not be widely rolled out, especially when there are other vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna that are about 95 per cent effective.
Andrew Miller, an anaesthetist and head of the Australian Medical Association in Western Australia, is also calling for the Government to pause its rollout plans because without herd immunity, there would be no guarantee there wouldn’t be rolling epidemics.
“Once you have one vaccine, you may not be able to have other ones. That’s why it’s very important to get it right the first time,” he told The Australian.
But other experts have come out in support of the vaccine despite its lower efficacy.
Infectious diseases expert Professor Peter Collignon of Australian National University told Sunrise Australians would still be better off.
“Yes it’s not perfect, it may not be as good as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine, but they’re going to be in short supply, not readily available,” he said.
He also pointed out that the Pfizer vaccine had to be stored in very cold temperatures of -70C and so in the field its efficacy might not be as good as the stated 90 per cent, if it was not stored properly and so not active when it was given to people.
Prof Collignon said the AstraZeneca vaccine would still save lives.
“The reality is we’ve got a vaccine that will be (available) in large numbers in Australia (and) have 70 per cent efficacy – that’s terrific news,” he said.
“Remember, wearing masks you probably have 15 or 20 per cent efficacy when there is a lot of transmission, but if you can improve that to 70 per cent by a vaccine that lasts all the time, you’re much better off.
“If this was available in the Melbourne outbreak, hundreds of lives would have been saved of people who otherwise would have died.”
Infectious diseases physician Professor Greg Dore of the Kirby Institute at the University of NSW also tweeted that a rapid vaccine rollout was needed from February, not a pause.
“Give Pfizer vaccine to frontline HQ & HCW staff & the elderly,” he said of the more effective vaccine.
“I’ll be happy to have the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, particularly if means we can get large majority done by winter.”
Australia’s chief medical officer Professor Paul Kelly said the advantage of the AstraZeneca vaccine was that it would be readily available in Australia.
“There will be plenty to vaccinate the entire population of Australia twice,” Prof Kelly told Sunrise.
Australia has secured 53.8 million doses of the vaccine, with people required to get two injections. It will be made by the Melbourne-based company CSL.
In contrast, Australia has only secured enough Pfizer vaccine for five million people.
Prof Kelly said the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s (TGA) assessment of the AstraZeneca vaccine would be based on extra data and not just the Phase III trial results published in The Lancet.
While the AstraZeneca vaccine was shown only to have a 62 per cent efficacy rate, this did rise as high as 90 per cent in a small group of volunteers who received a half-dose for their first jab by mistake. However, this has also raised concerns about how effective the vaccine actually is.
Even if the AstraZeneca vaccine was only 62 per cent effective, Prof Kelly said this still exceeded the World Health Organisation standard of 50 per cent effectiveness.
“One thing is clear though from those interim results is that this vaccine is very effective against severe disease, just exactly the same as Pfizer and Moderna data,” he said.
However, Labor’s health spokesman Chris Bowman has criticised the Morrison Government for not signing deals for more vaccine options and also wants a faster rollout.
“The trouble with (the) call for a pause … is that there’s nothing to replace AstraZeneca in the Australian context,” Mr Bowman told ABC radio’s RN Breakfast program.
“We don’t have deals with Moderna and J&J for example. That’s why it would be better if we had more deals and we’ve been saying that for months.
“We don’t know yet whether AstraZeneca will even pass the TGA test, we hope it will, it probably will, but there’s always risk.
“That’s why the Federal Government should have been months ago spreading that risk more thinly with more deals.”