(Image: Adobe)

Occasional Crikey columnist Charles Richardson recently asked me: “How in the name of all that’s holy do you expect Australia, with its Trumpist politics, to reach a vaccination rate of 75-80% of all people within six months, or indeed ever?” 

It’s a question worthy of further investigation. This is arguably the key number because once we reach it, short of an effective anti-viral treatment miraculously appearing, that will be as good as it gets for a while. One of the few benefits of Australia’s “not a race” vaccine rollout is that gives us the opportunity to compare what other nations achieved. 

The UK handled its rollout extremely well but appears to have tapered off at around 72% first dose (there also seems to be around a 5% drop-off rate between first and second doses). That said, first dose rates are still growing (albeit slowly) and will hit 75% in the coming months.

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(Source: Our World in Data)

There are a few mitigating factors that don’t apply in Australia. First, the UK has recorded almost 7 million infections, and many of these people, especially the younger ones, appear very happy with natural infection conferring a strong immune response compared to vaccines. The UK has struggled to achieve high vaccination rates amongst ethnic communities. Vaccine hesitancy remains at 20% for the Black British community, compared with 4% for all people. By contrast, we’re so far seeing the opposite in Australia, partly due to the outstanding work of community leaders, especially in Western Sydney, coupled with the NSW’s government’s soft vaccination passport work requirements.

In fact, some of the highest vaccinated LGAs are located multi-cultural Western Sydney. 

Also, the UK isn’t yet vaccinating children aged under 15 (unless in rare circumstances), while 16- and 17-year-olds started widespread vaccinations on August 23. Australia is likely to have 12-year-olds vaccinated before England does. It seems likely that we will breeze past the UK, which itself looks like it will end up at around 75% before kids get vaccinated. 

The US is a more difficult comparison, largely due to the wild fluctuations between states. Massachusetts has reached a respectable 75% first dose rate, whereas rural Wyoming (where Trump garnered 69.94% of the vote in 2020) is stuck at only 44.9%. One suspects most of Australia is far more inline with New England than The Cowboy State. 

A far better benchmark is Canada which, like Australia, started slowly but accelerated rapidly and has maintained one of the highest vaccination rates since May. First doses have hit 74.1% and increased almost 3% in August, likely heading towards 80%.  

(Source: Our World in Data)

The world’s fastest vaccinators remain largely smaller, usually island nations. Singapore recently hit 80.5% first dose this week as it resumes green-lane travel with Germany, Hong Kong and Brunei. The United Arab Emirates continues to lead all comers with 87% of people receiving their first dose. Caseloads there remain at around 1000 per day, with some blaming the lower efficacy Sinopharm vaccine and the country’s very porous borders. 

Israel, while lauded for its vaccination program, remains back at only 60.6% fully dosed, with older citizens now receiving their third booster shot. Israel’s rollout remains hamstrung by lower vaccination rates among ultra-orthodox Jewish and Arab communities

The biggest question for Australia revolves around the significant differences between states. Western Australia and Queensland, which have maintained a COVID zero policy, lag other states by around 10%. NSW has given a first dose to 55% of people, which is impressive, but still a fair way from 80% (and almost every country aside from the smaller nations has struggled to get from 60% to 80%). 

Australia has one ace up its sleeve: the (unwarranted and largely incorrect) criticism of the AstraZeneca vaccine (which has been shown to be slightly less effective than Pfizer, though efficacy might not wane as quickly), and lionisation of Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines has created an unusual latent demand from millions of people who have been “waiting for Pfizer”.

Most other nations rolled out AZ and Pfizer at roughly similar pace, so never created this FOMO effect. Combined with the likelihood of some sort of French-style vaccine passport being required, 80% vaccination appears achievable — perhaps even likely. 

With upwards of 12 million doses arriving in September, we’ll know a lot more. The only country that didn’t treat vaccination as a race may end up coming close to winning.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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