Health chiefs have rushed to reassure Australians on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, warning the biggest threat is that the nation is “completely non-immune” to the virus.
There is rising concern that alarmist reporting of the effectiveness of the different vaccines could “rock” public confidence in the program.
Australia’s success in suppressing the virus is one of the big reasons why experts say it’s vital the vaccine is rolled out as soon as possible.
Amid a debate over the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine compared to AstraZeneca vaccine, chief medical officer Paul Kelly has warned that both vaccines are “very good”.
But because so few Australians have contracted the virus, the threat is there’s hardly an immunity, let alone “herd immunity” which makes the nation particularly susceptible to the mutant virus detected in international travellers returning from the United Kingdom and South Africa.
Phase three clinical trials of the vaccine showed 62 per cent effectiveness when given the recommended dose compared to 95 per cent for the Pfizer vaccine.
That’s prompted debate over whether Australia should “wait” for the second vaccine, but the health chief says that’s not an option.
“Isn’t there a fair public debate to be had about whether one vaccine is a better option than another?’’ a journalist asked.
But Professor Kelly warned the real question was not if we “can have one or the other” but can we have it soon enough to make a difference.
“I say to you we’ve had so few cases we’re completely non-immune,’’ Professor Kelly warned.
“The choice is not whether one is better than the other, it’s which one is available to give the maximum rollout of vaccines to save lives and to protect lives this year.
“And the answer to that is the one we can make here. We don’t have the ability to make mRNA vaccine onshore.”
One of the biggest issues with the Pfizer vaccine – which will be rolled out first for frontline workers in hotel quarantine – is that it needs to be kept in cold storage which makes it difficult to distribute in some parts of Australia over summer and in remote areas.
That’s where the AstraZeneca vaccine comes into force, when it is approved for use in Australia.
The other benefit is that unlike the Pfizer vaccine, it can be manufactured in Australia.
“We have … the ability to make the AstraZeneca vaccine, as a different version of essentially getting to the same end point. We have got that through CSL. So we’ve those doses on shore,’’ Professor Kelly said.
“We’re not in any queue for those.”
Asked if Australia had backed the wrong horse in terms of Pfizer versus AstraZeneca, Professor Kelly said it was the wrong question.
“I think it’s pointless having that sort of hypothetical debate,’’ he said.
“We’ve got what we’ve got and we’ve got the AstraZeneca and it’s effective enough, particularly for severe illness.”
Professor Kelly said there was a group of “dyed in the wool” anti-vaxxers but it was vital to reassure the public about the safety and the effectiveness of the vaccine.
“There is a group, though, in between those two extremes, if you like, where confidence is absolutely the most important thing,’’ he said.
“And that’s what worries me about the coverage we had today in relation to the AstraZeneca vaccine.
“People will be nervous, of course, and we need to give more information and we’re doing that. So, yes, I am worried, and worried about the selective use of the data that we have, those interim results.”