covid-19 vaccine US america
(Image: AP/Mark Lennihan)

It was only a matter of time before party politics infiltrated the COVID-19 vaccination plan in Australia. The calls to speed up the vaccine rollout have resulted in the program being brought forward by a month.

But the government and our regulatory bodies would have been justified in sticking to the original timeline. The situation here is quite different to North America and Europe, and that additional time could be used to plan a more efficient rollout.

Regulators in the US, UK and Europe have had little choice but to grant emergency approval for the first vaccines. This means vaccinations can commence immediately with further testing, quality controls and interrogation of data occurring in parallel.

With daily new cases in the tens of thousands and rising exponentially, the risks of delay far outweigh the risks of fast approval. So much so that the UK is experimenting with delaying the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in order to immunise more people faster.

Australia’s case numbers are currently in single or double digits. It makes no sense to start injecting a new compound into millions of otherwise healthy people without the normal safeguards by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) – a globally respected regulatory authority — all for the sake of two summer months.

TGA Advisory Committee on Vaccines chair Allen Cheng lays out very well what the TGA is doing and the dangers of skipping these safeguards.

We are well placed to take things more slowly, eliminate more uncertainties and risks, and plan a safe and efficient national immunisation.

Trust in this and future vaccines is paramount, and nothing will undermine public trust more than even a handful of well-publicised adverse reactions to the vaccine. Scepticism circulating in the community should not be underestimated and is a risk that the final checks seek to eliminate.

Immunising a country like Australia quickly will be complex. It will requires unprecedented coordination between the three tiers of government, and it poses major logistical challenges for our health information infrastructure.

The additional time would allow authorities to prepare a fast and efficient rollout. There’s a lot to do. The public need to be educated about how the vaccine will be rolled out (including the fact that immunisation is not the silver bullet that will enable life to return to pre-COVID normal). Tracking systems also need to be improved. Local outbreaks need to be avoided and subdued where necessary as these will distract authorities and healthcare workers from implementing the vaccination plan.

Thursday’s announcement that the states will decide if the vaccine should be mandatory for aged care workers was a worrying sign. Given that aged care is a Commonwealth responsibility, it seems bizarre that the federal government handballed this issue to the states.

Federal and state government should be discussing the best way to ensure that all workers who have contact with the most vulnerable parts of the population are immunised.

The best incentive, of course, is a safe, effective vaccine. But explicit inducements should also be on the table. Given that aged care workers are among the lowest paid, a one-off payment to be immunised is an option that is likely to be effective and equitable.

This is the type of planning that governments should be doing with the additional time that good public health management — and a fair amount of luck — has given us.

Peter Fray

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