Australia’s COVID vaccine rollout for frontline hotel quarantine workers and seniors will “start small” as global supply issues slash the number of vaccines available in the first weeks of the rollout.
Despite previously claiming nearly four million doses of the vaccine would be rolled out by the end of March, it now appears less than half that will be shipped to Australia in that early time frame by AstraZeneca and Pfizer.
The Morrison Government had originally expected 3.8 million doses of AstraZeneca in February and March. They will now secure only 1.2 million doses next month.
However, the vaccine rollout will ramp up quickly in late March, rising to one million a week as soon as the local production at CSL comes into force to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine here in Australia.
The teething problems come amid European Union threats overnight to block exports of coronavirus vaccines to countries outside the bloc such as Britain, accusing AstraZeneca of failing to give a satisfactory explanation for a huge shortfall of promised doses to member states.
But in a statement to news.com.au, AstraZeneca reassured Australians that it still plans to commence deliveries “as soon as possible”.
“There are global supply challenges which have been reported in the media and acknowledged by the Australian Government,’’ the statement said.
“AstraZeneca’s plan remains to commence delivery of its vaccine to the Australian Government as soon as possible, pending approval from TGA, as confirmed by the Health Minister, Hon Greg Hunt.
“AstraZeneca is committed to supporting broad and equitable access to its COVID-19 vaccine, should it be approved by regulators, at no profit during the period of the pandemic. To produce billions of doses of a potential vaccine for markets around the world at pace, we have built more than a dozen regional supply chains to provide rapid access to as many countries as possible, as quickly as possible.”
On Monday, Health Minister Greg Hunt said the international orders were the “one variable that has changed because their entire global supply has changed”.
“So at this stage, we are expecting about 1.2 million doses of AstraZeneca international,’’ he said.
“But knowing that, these figures can increase in any one day or decrease if there has been a supply change, so that was the advice as of yesterday. I spoke with the country head for Australia and they were apologetic about that but it is not anything to do with Australia – that is their global challenge which I think was widely reported on the weekend.
“But at the same time, being able to deliver the international doses slightly earlier than anticipated and the domestic doses slightly earlier than anticipated and at major scale.”
On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned there would be “challenges along the way”.
“This is a global challenge like none we have seen in a very, very long time,’’ he said.
“Now, we remain on track to have those vaccines in Australia and ready to go from very small beginnings.
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“I should stress, very small beginnings, starting small. We are more looking at late February now than mid-February because of the challenges that we have seen in the production and delivery for both AstraZeneca and Pfizer around the world.”
The Prime Minister noted that the crisis European leaders faced was completely different to the situation in Australia.
“They are under considerable strain and stress there, in countries that are experiencing large numbers of fatalities every day and their vaccination programs under extreme stress,” he said.
“We remain within the guard rails of the time frame that we set a few weeks ago but, obviously that is going to continue to come under challenge for events and circumstances that exist well beyond our shores.”
In August last year, the Morrison Government took the decision to manufacture the vaccine here in Australia, to ensure the nation is not entirely reliant on the production of vaccines overseas.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said based on Pfizer’s shipping advice, the first vaccines should be in Australia ready for distribution in late February.
“With regards to AstraZeneca, the international AstraZeneca supplies in Australia are likely to commence slightly earlier than had previously been anticipated, early in March, and if there is more guidance on that we will obviously provide it,’’ Mr Hunt said.
“That is subject both to TGA approval and to shipping. I think that’s important and the domestic AstraZeneca production via CSL is likely to see supplies of approximately one million doses per week commencing in late March.
“We are looking at 80,000 plus per week at the initial outset and that is why we are presuming 80,000 would be available. Then, as we have indicated, later on we will have AstraZeneca international from early March, is the current guidance, and then AstraZeneca domestic at the volume of approximately a million a week on the latest advice that we had over the weekend.”