Political own goals on vaccine problems help no one
Own goals do not instil confidence. And there have been some big ones of late with the vaccine rollout.
Internationally, there have been own goals with the Oxford-AstraZeneca product. For example, many European countries paused rollouts due to rare thromboembolism events. This pre-emptive action masquerading as an “abundance of caution” unnecessarily undermined public confidence in what is really a pretty good vaccine.
Once the CSL plant swings into action vaccine availability will increase quickly.Credit:Eddie Jim
And now Australian politicians, not wanting to be left out of scoring own goals, initiated a totally unnecessary and destructive slanging match between federal and state governments about the slow rollout. Seriously? It is a supply problem, d’oh.
The major problem for vaccine rollout in Australia is the lack of supply of Astra-Zeneca from Europe. Maybe better co-ordination of federal and state systems would have meant perhaps another 100,000 or so vaccinated by now with smoother logistics – but nothing like the additional 3 million people needed to meet the target of 4 million by the end of March.
I had sympathy for the federal government on this matter – up to Wednesday. As an academic, I applaud setting targets. But, politically, being bold about “going for 4 million” has backfired since failure due to reasons (largely) beyond our control has made the goal impossible.
The David Littleproud brain fade (or Machiavellian scheming gone wrong) on Wednesday was shocking. In an environment where maintaining public confidence in the vaccination rollout is imperative, not only was this an own goal – but sabotage of the public good.
Politics aside, however, these supply issues should soon be in our rear vision mirror. As CSL comes on stream, delivering about (and hopefully more than) 1 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine a week, the rollout will accelerate.
There will be other pressure points in our fight to stay ahead of COVID that will matter more in six to 12 months. At the University of Melbourne on Wednesday we launched the COVID-19 Pandemic Trade-offs web-tool that allows the public and policy makers to see what might happen in Australia under 648 scenarios of the vaccine rollout.
You can alter what the vaccine uptake will be, what you think the effectiveness of the vaccine will be in reducing transmission, and what you think the reproductive rate of the virus will be (ie how infectious it is, being higher for the UK and other variants). And then see what happens to infection rates over the next year, and net health effects (allowing for the negative impacts of lockdowns).
One lesson we draw from the modelling in this tool is that we do need to keep our borders secure and quarantine comprehensive until Phase 2 (adult vaccination) is near complete. Otherwise, especially if the more infectious UK variants get into Australia and gain a foothold, it may not be pretty.
Unsurprisingly, but importantly, getting vaccine coverage as high as possible to make us more resilient to viral incursions matters. Building confidence in, as well as safe speed of, the rollout matters.
We also find that the negative effects of lockdowns on depression, anxiety and self-harm (let alone economic impacts) mean that as vaccine coverage increases we need to pivot from the aggressive elimination approach that served its purpose in New Zealand and Victoria in 2020, and evolve to a more moderate approach.
Down the track – perhaps about July – we will be seriously discussing Phase 3. Which is vaccinating children. The vaccines are not yet approved for children. Children themselves stand to gain less than adults, given COVID-19 is not as serious an illness for them. But we will need wide uptake of vaccination among all ages in the population for us – as a community – to be resilient to opening up our borders. Put another way, herd immunity is unlikely without also vaccinating children. Approval of the vaccine for children and a high uptake by them as well as adults is necessary.
Speaking of herd immunity, many epidemiologists in a global survey this week expressed concern about variants arising that are resistant to vaccines (and also more infectious, like the UK variant). I too am worried about this (just set the reproductive rate high and vaccine effectiveness at reducing infection low on our web-tool and see what happens).
But if such variants arise, it will be more of a setback than a disaster. We will “just” have to keep evolving the vaccines to cover these new variants, making the SARS-CoV-2 virus (variants) and vaccine more like the annual influenza and flu vaccine. Not ideal, but OK.
Professor Tony Blakely is an epidemiologist at the University of Melbourne.
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