“Don’t Rush to Failure”? But Now We Have the Wrong Vaccine

The government’s Covid-19 vaccine messaging took an unacknowledged but dramatic turn around new year. Back in late September, Australians were apparently at “the front of the queue” in terms of the global vaccine roll-out.

From early December, however, when the UK approved the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine, the message was no longer tenable. By the end of the month, the tone had reversed. “You don’t rush to failure,” said the PM. “We don’t have to cut corners.”

In other words, we’re fortunate in Australia to have the virus under control. Let’s wait for the data and let the regulators do their job thoroughly. Get it right. That was the idea.

Now, it appears that contrary to the contemporaneous rhetoric, the federal government was already committed to the AZ vaccine. CSL has been manufacturing AZ’s vaccine under contract with the government since November.

This was before AZ had even released its 8 December 2020 “interim results,” in which vaccine efficacy sat uncertainly somewhere between 62% and 90%, depending on how you square a “dosing error.” On 8 February 2021, we found out AZ’s vaccine is only 10% effective against the South African variant, which our chief medical officer recently said could become the globally dominant variant.

Health Minister Greg Hunt’s response to these issues? “There is no evidence to indicate a reduction in either the effectiveness of the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines in preventing the disease.” H’mmm…

Meanwhile, CSL will not complete manufacture of the government’s order of 50 million AZ vaccine doses until “second quarter 2021.” It could have manufactured the Novavax vaccine instead, but now cannot do so until finishing the AZ batch. Novavax can deliver European-manufactured vaccines, but not until “mid-2021” at the earliest.

A CSL manufacturing plant

For reference, the Novavax vaccine is 96% effective against the original SARS-CoV-2, 86% effective against the UK variant and 60% effective against the South African variant. It is not known whether the Pfizer vaccine, which is being given to Australians in vulnerable, priority groups (as well as politicians), is effective against the South African variant.

In sum? The “no rush” soundbyte was simply a cover for the fact that we are very much not at “the front of the queue.” Australia is currently the 84th country worldwide in terms of total Covid-19 vaccinations. 

Yet even to be running 84th, the government did rush it. Now we have a suboptimal vaccine roll-out all but locked in.

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