AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine
(Image: AAP/James Ross)

Last month a teary Sarah Gilbert received a standing ovation at Wimbledon. Gilbert, a professor of vaccinology at Oxford, is one of the pandemic’s great heroes. She led the team that developed the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, which is saving lives across the world. 

But here in Australia, AZ’s reputation has been trashed as fears about the rare risk of blood clots were magnified by politicians, health experts and the media, creating an impenetrable wall of hesitancy. Doubt spread while Australia was cosily COVID-free so by the time Delta had put half the country into lockdown the damage was done.

Young people desperate to be vaccinated are being talked out of it by GPs, so they’re going doctor-shopping for places that will give them the vaccine. Older Australians most at risk of death from COVID are “waiting for Pfizer”.

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Australians are dying while vials of a safe, effective vaccine that is liberating millions around the world expire in GP clinics. We’ve only got ourselves to blame.

The numbers

Here are some statistics that should make you scream. On Tuesday, Sydney’s Olympic Park vaccination hub vaccinated only 50 people with AstraZeneca in a single day.

Sydney’s lockdown has no end date. Widespread vaccination is the only way to stop Delta in its tracks but despite pleas from NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian for people to get AZ, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics last week revealed 35% of unvaccinated people between 50 and 69 — and 26% of those over 70 — are waiting for Pfizer.

Australia is in the comically disastrous situation where we have half the country in lockdown, just 12% of the population fully vaccinated, and thousands of doses of AZ are being thrown out. At the end of June, Bendigo threw out 500 doses. There are hundreds about to expire in the Northern Territory that could be donated to Timor-Leste. GPs are reporting falling demand, even as supply of Pfizer is constrained. 

Most of the hesitancy is driven by fear of blood clots. For under-50s, the risk is about three per 100,000. For over-60s, the most risk-averse about AstraZeneca, the risk is halved. In contrast, everything from common medical procedures, the contraceptive pill, and aspirin have a greater risk. Going by the numbers, there is a 0.001% chance of a blood clot.  

Morrison’s failure

Sydney’s Delta outbreak, which has spread across the country, began because an unvaccinated limousine driver caught COVID. The man, in his 60s, hadn’t been vaccinated because he was worried about a family history of blood clots.

But the limo driver isn’t the villain here. Your anger could be directed at the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), whose advice that Pfizer would be the preferred vaccine for under-50s (April) and under-60s (June) essentially locked AstraZeneca away from younger Australians, while simultaneously spooking those still eligible. ATAGI’s (admittedly very difficult) decisions were made before there were community outbreaks.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants to pin the blame on ATAGI. But while its advice, based on concern about how consumers might assess risks, now seems to have backfired and aged poorly, it was just that — advice. It was the job of politicians to act on and communicate it. Which is where Morrison’s failures lie.

After ATAGI’s April advice, Morrison rushed to give a late-night presser: 15 minutes later. The nuance — that people in that age bracket could still get the vaccine — was lost. You’d only call a night-time presser for something important and scary. 

And when Morrison — apparently off the cuff at another night-time presser in late June — said under-40s should talk to their GPs and get AstraZeneca if they wanted to, he was simply stating what ATAGI’s advice had always been. A preference is not a hard rule. ATAGI doesn’t make rules. 

Still, health bodies and state chief health officers were confused, as was the public. Who wouldn’t be? Just days earlier, the government had announced AstraZeneca — the locally produced workhorse of Australia’s vaccine rollout — would be phased out by October.

Then Sydney went into lockdown. 

Even when desperately trying to rehabilitate AZ, Morrison sowed confusion. He repeatedly put down ATAGI for being “overly cautious”. On Wednesday he said there was a “constant appeal” for it to change its advice. Five minutes later he said he couldn’t control what ATAGI advises.

Yesterday he finally announced pharmacists could administer AstraZeneca. But his response to questions about whether they could give under-40s informed consent without them having to book a separate GP consultation (pharmacists can) was so garbled he had to send a spinner round the press gallery to clarify. 

And let’s not forget how often Morrison told Australians at the start of the year the vaccine rollout was “not a race”. No doubt that persuaded many people they could hold out for something better, and cemented any doubts.

Labor, journalists trash vaccine

But Morrison isn’t the only one to highlight here. We could point fingers at Queensland’s Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young, who said she didn’t want an 18-year-old Queenslander who wouldn’t die from COVID dying of a blood clot. It was terrifying, overheated language, especially when less than a month later people in their 20s were in the ICU. 

We could point fingers at Queensland’s Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, who tried to dissuade under-40s from getting AZ, and refuses to delete an incorrect tweet about it.

In fact, federal Labor’s messaging has unsurprisingly focused on Morrison’s (frankly appalling) failure to shore up enough different vaccine deals. But that’s meant it has often framed AZ as the “wrong” vaccine, a dud we’re stuck with because of Morrison’s incompetence.

Asked to rehabilitate the vaccine on RN Breakfast this week, Labor Senator Kristina Keneally accused Morrison of “freelancing” on AstraZeneca. Which is true, but people should be aggressively encouraged to take it. Labor’s health spokesman Chris Bowen tweeted that Australia’s problem was vaccine scarcity. But there’s an oversupply of AZ.

When we asked Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese last month whether his MPs were contributing to vaccine hesitancy he bristled, and slammed the Morrison government’s failure to secure enough other vaccines.

But Labor’s incentives — to point out government failure — make this language unsurprising. It’s the supposedly objective fourth estate that has been most villainous. There’s the ABC’s Norman Swan, rightly or wrongly a well-trusted authority, who now openly admits he caused some vaccine hesitancy for casting doubts about AZ’s efficacy. 

A blood clot death this week was met with a thunderous headline in The Mercury (“VAX DEATH”). The West Australian has run front pages on “ASTRAZENECA HOSPITAL HELL”. This morning an ABC story about an AZ-related stroke was accompanied by a grizzly picture and shared on social media. News outlets still don’t seem to grasp that most readers don’t read beyond the headline. 

Looking at coverage of AstraZeneca over the past few months, it’s hard not to conclude — notable exceptions aside — that Australia’s media prioritised clicks and eyeballs over sober public health messages. But media alone didn’t destroy AZ’s reputation. Neither did Morrison, or ATAGI, or Labor, or selfish boomers. Just about everyone sucks here.

Are you or your loved ones prepared to get the AstraZeneca vaccine? Let us know by writing to [email protected] and include your full name if you’d like to be considered for publication.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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