Australia’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout would be in jeopardy if local manufacture of the AstraZeneca vaccine was not occurring, with the health department secretary saying the government has “no expectation” that supplies of the vaccine will be coming from overseas “anytime soon”.
Responding to questions about Australia’s vaccine rollout before Senate estimates on Wednesday, Prof Brendan Murphy was asked how many of the 4m doses projected to be administered by the end of March had been delivered. As of Monday only 312,502 first doses had been administered.
This includes 61,766 doses in Victoria, 34,877 in Western Australia, 72,943 in New South Wales, 7,251 in the ACT, 8,790 in Tasmania, 16,949 in South Australia, 42,469 in Queensland and 5,395 in the Northern Territory.
Murphy blamed the slow rollout on blocked imports from the EU, which he said the government did not anticipate lasting when it made its initial vaccination projections.
“AstraZeneca have had a number of attempts to get shipments released and they haven’t been successful,” Murphy said. “The challenge has been in Europe, they’ve got a raging pandemic and say that AstraZeneca need to make the European commitments before they will allow exports. The reason they’re allowing the Pfizer exports is because Pfizer has been able to meet the European contractual commitments.
“AstraZeneca continues to try, we continue to try through various diplomatic channels, but we have no expectation that we will get the additional vaccines anytime soon.”
The first locally produced AstraZeneca vaccines from the CSL plant in Melbourne were released on Tuesday night. The vaccination rollout will now gain pace “exponentially”, Murphy said. He acknowledged the situation would be dire if Australia had not established local production.
“It has been an absolutely crucial decision,” he said.
Murphy said the government was “absolutely locked into” the target for every eligible Australian to receive their first vaccine dose by the end of October. He was asked why the government had previously made bold predictions of vaccinating 4m Australians by the end of March when it knew there were export issues emerging in Europe in January.
Murphy said back then, the government anticipated the doses would ultimately be delivered and had not anticipated such significant supply constraints as the drug company “believed at the time that they could deliver”.
“The most important thing is that as of right now, we’re rolling out 830,000 AstraZeneca doses from the CSL factory, they started rolling out this morning and they are going across the country so we are now for the first time in this vaccine rollout no longer dependent on very insecure, international suppliers,” Murphy said. “That is undoubtedly good news, so that’s a really good milestone to be reaching.”
Phase 1b of the vaccine rollout began on Monday, with the program expanding to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders over the age of 55, other healthcare workers and adults over 70. But estimates heard just half of phase 1a, which has targeted the most vulnerable including aged care residents and hotel quarantine staff, has been completed.
The department of health also faced questions about the government’s vaccination website, which GPs say has led to booking issues and has placed stress on their practices.
Associate health department secretary Caroline Edwards said she did not accept the website was a “mess”.
“This website has had enormous traffic on its initial days, it didn’t crash,” she said. “The vast majority of bookings went through, that’s a really important point to make, secondly what we did is we designed it in consultation with providers and other people about how they would want to work.”
She also said GPs had been alerted before the launch of the website and should not have been caught off guard by the bookings. Edwards said it was not supposed to be a booking website, but “what it is in fact is a federated model which makes sure that there’s a single point service that you can use to find your way into the various booking arrangements”.