The vaccine rollout in Australia is yet to be delayed after local regulators advised limiting the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine – the country’s main vaccine.
On Thursday, the government said it was now recommending that people under the age of 50 receive the Pfizer jab over that of AstraZeneca.
It follows restrictions in other countries, after the European medicines regulator discovered a risk of a rare blood clot linked to the vaccine.
The move will likely delay the goal of vaccinating all Australians this year.
The country is already around 85% behind schedule – it has so far vaccinated around one million of its nearly 26 million people.
But Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia could afford the delay because it had virtually no community transmission of Covid-19.
On Friday, he announced that Australia had doubled its Pfizer contract to 40 million doses.
But so far Australia has only received around a million shots from Pfizer – with the rest due “by the end of the year,” the government said.
Australia also has a contract for 51 million Novovax vaccines, but it has yet to be approved by regulators.
Mr Morrison urged people over the age of 50 to keep getting vaccinated, saying any risk was very rare.
“If an outbreak happened again … you would be at risk if you didn’t get the vaccine because you would be exposing yourself to the most likely event of a Covid condition that could lead to serious illness.” ,” he said.
Critics of Australia’s deployment have condemned the government for “putting all its eggs in one basket” with AstraZeneca.
The setback is changing the timelines for potential border reopening, overseas travel, and economic recovery.
What is the problem with AstraZeneca?
Early studies suggested that blood clotting can occur in about four to six in a million people, Australian regulators have said.
They changed their advice for those under 50, after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said on Wednesday it had found rare cases of blood clots in some vaccinated adults. The EMA said the benefits outweighed the risks.
In the UK, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) – the expert group that advises the use of vaccines – now recommends that healthy people under the age of 30 be offered a different vaccine.
AstraZeneca said it is respecting the decision taken by Australian regulators. He said tens of millions of people had received his dose around the world and the risk of a blood clot was considered a rare side effect.
“We note that the current situation in Australia with very low or no community transmission of Covid-19 has been a factor in this updated recommendation,” he said.
Australia has reported one case of blood clotting for approximately 420,000 doses of AstraZeneca.
How will the deployment be affected?
Australia started its vaccination program in February, later than many countries due to its low infection rates.
It is in the second stage of a five-stage deployment, where the dose is delivered to more vulnerable segments of the population.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said those who had already received their first dose without side effects could “safely receive their second dose” and people over 70 would continue to be vaccinated.
But with around 12 million Australians between the ages of 16 and 49, concerns have been expressed that Australia may not have access to enough vaccines in the short term.
The government had previously pledged to have all Australians vaccinated by October. A revised target has not been set.
Why is Australia in this situation?
Australia relied on its AstraZeneca contract for 54 million doses, and its ability to manufacture 50 million doses locally, to cover most of its vaccine needs.
The Labor opposition condemned the government for not having more contingency plans.
Labor asked why Australia failed to secure supplies of Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines – which are used in Europe and North America.
Critics also accused the government of not being transparent about the vaccine supply.
Earlier this week, Mr Morrison blamed the deployment delay on the European Union blocking AstraZeneca shipments from going to Australia – but this was denied by the EU.