covid-19 vaccine clinical trial
(Image: AAP/David Mariuz)

As millions of people around the world receive coronavirus vaccines, the Morrison government remains adamant Australians must wait until March.

Despite former politicians, epidemiologists, business leaders and Labor joining the chorus calling for a quicker rollout, Prime Minister Scott Morrison maintains going too fast would be “very dangerous”.

But the frustration is understandable. Although Australia isn’t struggling with over-burdened hospitals and thousands of deaths, constant border closures and grumbling case numbers have caused a summer of angst. A quicker rollout could bring much needed relief from uncertainty.

So does the government’s argument for a slow and steady approach stand up?

What’s the timeline?

Health Minister Greg Hunt confirmed to The Daily Telegraph this morning that Australians would start being inoculated in early March, and the Pfizer vaccine would be the first to be used.

Before that happens the vaccines need to be approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration. The TGA is expected to approve the Pfizer vaccine in late January and has asked for more data on the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine by the end of the month.

But the first batches of the AstraZeneca vaccine are likely to arrive in Australia from late January. Australia also has a vaccine deal with Novavax, but that isn’t expected to arrive until later in the year.

Why the wait?

The government says Australia is taking its time and letting the TGA review things thoroughly because we can afford to wait. Unlike Britain and the United States, where vaccines have been granted emergency authorisation, Australia’s low case numbers and relatively controlled clusters make it different.

“Even with the current situation in NSW and Victoria, we can afford to wait for the TGA to do its job and make sure we’re getting a safe, effective and quality vaccine,” Monash University epidemiologist Professor Allen Cheng wrote on Twitter.

But if the TGA approves a vaccine in late January or early February, and doses are available, why wait until March?

Yesterday Morrison said that once approved, individual batches of vaccine would need to be tested. But that should take only about a fortnight.

Labor has gone on the attack, saying talk of getting approvals right is the Coalition’s attempt to spin its failure to get a deal with manufacturers in time.

“It makes no sense for the TGA to have recommended — as it is likely to do in January — the approval of the Pfizer vaccine, but then for the rollout to not occur until March,” Labor leader Anthony Albanese said.

“What we know is that Australia is not at the front of the queue. We have never been at the front of the queue.”

Logistical challenges

But even with the planned timeline there’s a lot we don’t know about our vaccination program, which indicates the March date could reflect the government’s recognition of the major logistical challenges.

“There’s a lot of detail that the public and health professionals haven’t been given yet, which suggests to me that it’s still getting organised,” University of Sydney vaccination expert Julie Leask said.

A key challenge will be the federal government working in an area — immunisation — traditionally administered by state health departments.

“It’s where those two jurisdictions and entities meet that you can get gaps or problematic overlaps,” Leask said.

“I can guarantee you that some of the issues that arise will be about confusion with state and federal responsibilities.”

A slightly slower timeline could give health services and general practitioners more time to ensure that when vaccines are delivered they’re done so properly.

What about the rest of the world?

By international standards, Australia’s vaccine timeline might seem frustratingly slow. But countries which rushed the rollout are seeing why that’s so difficult.

The Trump administration wanted 20 million people to get their first dose by the end of 2020, but that number was closer to 3 million, with delays, backlogs and poor communication between state and federal health bodies leaving vials of vaccine unused.

In the UK, rollout has been hampered by red tape and shortages. There’s anger and confusion at a decision to delay the second dose for 12 weeks.

Then there’s Israel. The poster child for vaccine delivery has won plaudits for inoculating 13% of its population. But it is refusing to vaccinate Palestinians in occupied territories while giving the jab to Jewish settlers, a move sharply criticised by human rights groups.

The point is, no country is finding it easy to vaccinate its population.

Leask says the Morrison government’s goal of vaccinating 80% of the population by the end of the year is still incredibly ambitious. Even if we do bring things forward a few weeks, don’t expect a quick fix.