Nearly a year since vaccines were first rolled out in Australia and we’ve donated just 15% of the 60 million vaccines we promised abroad.
On Friday Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Australia would send 23 police officers and 40 Australian Defence Force members to the Solomon Islands to help provide security and support as anti-government protests turned violent.
In the Solomon Islands, just 10% of those aged over 12 are fully vaccinated. This problem is worldwide: in Syria only 4.1% of the population fully vaccinated.
The World Health Organization has called for countries to suspend booster vaccination programs. Some nations have given out more booster shots in the past three months than low-income countries have given total doses all year. More than a third of Israel’s 9 million population have received a third jab.
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WHO has warned its goal to vaccinate 40% of the population of every country by the end of this year will not be met. But it’s not all down to vaccine access. There are also problems with distribution and vaccine hesitancy. What more could Australia do?
Where are vaccination numbers dire?
Modelling from the Lowy Institute shows the situation in many Pacific nations is grim. Some countries such as Fiji have vaccinated more than 80% of those aged over 12 — Nauru reports it has vaccinated 100% of those eligible — but other countries including Papua New Guinea, Kiribati and Vanuatu are worryingly low.
Vaccination rates in PNG are particularly concerning: fewer than 2% of those aged 12 are fully vaccinated. At the current rate, it could take a decade to fully vaccinate its population. And on the current trajectory, just 14% of the over-12s will have been vaccinated by the start of 2023. And 51% in Vanuatu.
Bump up vaccine donations
Melbourne company CSL has been contracted to manufacture 51 million doses of AstraZeneca. It’s produced almost half and is expected to hit the 51 million mark early next year.
The government has confirmed it won’t renew its contract with CSL, despite calls from Labor and aid groups to continue onshore production. Instead, Australia will donate excess Pfizer and Moderna doses when the AstraZeneca supply dries up.
Australia plans to donate 20 million doses abroad by the middle of next year — just 30% of the promised doses — and 40 million by the start of 2023.
But CSL has been manufacturing about a million AstraZeneca doses a week. If production continued at that rate, Australia could fulfil its promise within just over a year with AstraZeneca alone.
Address vaccine hesitancy
It’s not just vaccine supply hindering global rollout, but logistics and vaccine hesitancy. Thousands of donated vaccines expired in PNG due to lack of demand.
Just half of PNG’s parliamentarians are vaccinated — some have cited social media misinformation as reasons for avoiding the vaccine. At Port Moresby General Hospital in the nation’s capital, just 10% of nurses are vaccinated.
The government has launched campaigns featuring sports stars promoting the vaccine, but they haven’t helped.
A key concern is poor health infrastructure in many nations, coupled with high regional populations. PNG has relied on community-driven health initiatives, making distributing vaccines — which have to be kept at cool temperatures — difficult.
Many Pacific nations have faced a brain drain of healthcare professionals, with pharmacists, nurses and doctors moving to Australia for better wages. In 2010 the WHO called for a global ethical recruitment code to be developed to limit the healthcare exodus, but most countries — including Australia — have yet to develop one.
While PNG Prime Minister James Marape has said there are plans to improve the health system using cash donations from Australia, New Zealand and the WHO, little progress has been made. Australia has provided an estimated $21 million in direct funding to provincial health authorities for technical and logistical support in PNG.
Australian Council for International Development chief executive officer Marc Purcell tells Crikey Australia needs to commit more cash and ramp up efforts to address low vaccination rates.
“A mere four kilometres separate PNG and Australia,” he said. “It is in our best interest to stop a COVID case explosion on our doorstep. The longer we allow COVID to run rampant in developing countries, the more at risk we are of it mutating. It is not only a humanitarian crisis for PNG but also a health threat to Australia.”
He wants an additional $250 million for COVAX, the global vaccine facility, and a further $50 million to address vaccine hesitancy.
Key support packages from Australia, including the COVID-19 Pacific response package, are due to expire in six months.