Australia’s mass rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations faces more delays with the planned involvement of individual community chemists pushed back until June, while experts hold emergency meetings on AstraZeneca side effects.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation will meet again on Wednesday to discuss blood clots developed by a 44-year-old Victorian man, but Acting Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd said he was ‘absolutely comfortable’ with Australians receiving the jab.
The European Union has blocked more than three million doses from being exported to Australia over the past month, leaving local authorities scrambling to ramp up on-shore production as the nation’s vaccination program falls behind schedule.
The government plans to use GP clinics as the hubs of the vaccine rollout once all over-50s are made eligible next month, but some experts say more industrial-scale facilities are needed to get Australia up to the speed of many foreign nations who are vaccinating are much faster rates.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) will meet on Wednesday to weigh up the risks and benefits of AstraZeneca vaccine
‘Our distribution should be more fine-tuned to using community centres,’ Andrew Liveris, special advisor to the National Covid Commission, said.
‘Why are we restricting it to just GP clinics?’ he told The Australian.
Pharmacy Guild of Australia president Trent Twomey said delays in chemist involvement meant individual community pharmacists would start giving out jabs at least a month later than expected.
‘The next logical step is to activate community pharmacies to ensure we do have that widespread access,’ Professor Twomey said.
‘Pharmacists manage supply chain logistics of medicines for a living. We can do it better than any other healthcare provider because we do it day in and day out.’
But as pressure grows on the federal government to expedite the rollout, there are concerns that bad publicity surrounding the AstraZeneca vaccine could result in a low take-up of the locally manufactured jab.
Incidences of blood clots among a small fraction of recipients of the vaccine have caused the AstraZeneca product to be suspended in some European countries, and Australian authorities are examining whether similar measures should be introduced here, which would result in very lengthy delays to the nationwide immunity target.
An urgent investigation into the vaccine was started after a Melbourne man who received the jab in March was last week hospitalised with a rare blood clotting condition.
Experts have been holding talks with European regulators to determine whether the 44-year-old’s low blood platelets and 22 other similar cases in the UK are linked to the vaccine.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) will convene on Wednesday to weigh up the risks and benefits of AstraZeneca jabs once further information is provided from international discussions.
‘We anticipate more information from international regulators, and when the outcomes of ongoing investigations of this case will be available that will enable us to assess the risks and benefits of this vaccine for the Australian population,’ ATAGI said in a statement.
An investigation was launched into the potential side effects of the Covid-19 vaccine after a Melbourne man developed blood clots after receiving the AstraZeneca jab (pictured)
Dr Kidd dismissed suggestions the vaccine poses any serious threat and the government’s medical advice remains unchanged.
He said there was no ‘definitive evidence’ the vaccination caused the Australian man’s condition but his symptoms are ‘consistent with what we’ve seen in international reports of similar cases’.
It was important to note from the overseas experience that one to two cases of thrombosis have been recorded in one million people who receive the AstraZeneca vaccine, he added.
‘By contrast, we know that the risk of death from Covid-19 remains at 1 to 2 deaths per 100 people infected,’ Dr Kidd said.
Dr Kidd insisted the vaccine rollout should continue as planned to protect Australians.
‘Although we currently have no cases of community transmission in Australia, we are permanently at risk of being on the brink of another outbreak,’ he said.
A healthcare worker is seen preparing to administer AstraZeneca covid19 vaccinations inside of the Royal Exhibition Centre in Melbourne
‘There will be inevitably more cases of community transmission, especially when our nation starts to open up further to the rest of the world.’
‘We need to continue to protect our population through our voluntary vaccination program and through the public health measures which have been in place throughout the pandemic.’
The patient at the centre of the investigation got the jab on March 22 and later presented to Box Hill Hospital in Melbourne suffering fever and abdominal pain.
He was found to have blood clots in his abdomen and a very low platelet count, prompting concerns from doctors.
Although there is no hard proof the AstraZeneca product can cause thrombosis syndromes in rare cases, the Australian Government has warned doctors and recipients to be on high alert.
‘People should be particularly alert to severe persistent headaches occurring four to 20 days after vaccination and which are different to the usual pattern of headaches and do not settle with over-the-counter painkillers,’ Acting Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd said on Friday.
‘If you received the AstraZeneca vaccine and experience symptoms of persistent headaches or other worrying symptoms four to 20 days after the vaccine, you should seek medical advice.’
The man’s symptoms are similar to those of prothrombotic immune thrombocytopenia in some patients who also had the vaccine.
Acting Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd (pictured) said the condition was rare and has insisted the vaccine rollout continue as planned
Some countries restricted use of the AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19 while others have resumed inoculations, as investigations into reports of rare, and sometimes severe, blood clots continue.
Most Australians will receive the AstraZeneca jab rather than the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
The European Medicines Agency and the World Health Organization have said the benefits of the shot outweigh the risks, but are monitoring the developing situation as more cases are reported.
AstraZeneca, an Anglo-Swedish company, said earlier in March its vaccine was 76 per cent effective in preventing symptomatic coronavirus infections in a US trial, and that studies did not indicate higher risks of clotting.
General practices involved in the national coronavirus vaccine rollout is expected to double to 3000 by the end of this week after tensions erupted between state and federal governments over the slow progress of the program. Pictured: A nurse preparing a vaccine at a Darwin GP clinic
Almost 842,000 doses have been administered since the program started more than a month ago, albeit well short of the four million vaccinations originally promised by the Morrison government by the end of March.
Over the past week, tensions flared between state and federal governments over who was to blame for the slow rollout of the vaccine program.
The government expects the program will also now speed up with CSL pumping out the AstraZeneca vaccine for domestic use.
Nationals deputy leader David Littleproud has gone from blaming the states for the pace of the vaccine rollout to scolding the European Union for blocking supply.
Mr Littleproud argued Australia had been ‘badly let down’ by the EU.
‘This is the biggest vaccination program our country has ever seen and it’s important we understand what’s happening with it,’ he told the Nine Network.
‘The arithmetic is simple on this. We are three million short because of the EU, who cut us short.’
But Labor frontbencher Pat Conroy said the rollout had been plagued by chaos and dysfunction.
Mr Conroy said one of the largest GP clinics in his electorate was set back by several days when a shipment of vaccines was sent to the wrong address.
Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner receiving the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccination at a Darwin GP clinic on March 22
His electorate is home to 24,000 constituents over the age of 70, who have no clear idea of when they will receive their two doses of vaccinations.
‘This isn’t about politics,’ Mr Conroy said on Monday.
‘We’ve got both Labor and Liberal state governments saying the federal government is delivering this in a substandard, unacceptable way.’
Australian Medical Association ACT president Antonio Di Dio told reporters that getting vaccinated was a crucial step in tackling this ‘ghastly illness’.
‘We are very, very optimistic about the effectiveness of the vaccine and we encourage very strongly all Australians who are eligible to check that eligibility,’ he said.
A man infected with the South African strain of the virus remains in a critical condition in the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
There were 10 new cases of Covid-19 among returned overseas travellers already in quarantine, but there were no new cases of community transmission anywhere across the country on Monday.
COUNTRIES RESPONSE TO ASTRAZENECA JAB AND BOOD CLOTS
The Therapeutic Goods Administration said on Wednesday a link between the vaccine and clot disorders had not been proven but that it was still investigating the issue as vaccinations continue.
Resumed inoculations from March 19.
Cyprus, which suspended the vaccine on March 15, resumed inoculations on March 19.
To pause offering vaccine to people aged under 55 and require a new analysis of the shot’s benefits and risks based on age and gender.
Medical regulator approved the resumed use of AstraZeneca’s vaccine on March 19, but said it should only be given to people aged 55 and older.
Resumed using the AstraZeneca vaccine from March 29, but will only give it to people aged 65 and over.
Has limited the use of the vaccine after a nurse died of anaphylactic shock, and vaccinations will continue only in full-fledged medical centers, news agency TASS reported on March 19.
From March 31, Germany will limit use of the shot to people over 60 years and high-priority groups, following further reports of a rare brain blood disorder.
Resumed use on March 25 after suspending it on March 11 pending investigations into reports that it might be linked to blood clots.
Resumed using the vaccine on March 22 but warned against the use of the vaccine in people with a low blood platelet count.
Plans to resume rollout of the vaccine for all those aged 18 and over in ‘the coming days,’ a committee said on March 19, after suspending it on March 14.
Resumed using the vaccine on March 19, and Italians who decline to be inoculated with it will be given an alternative later on.
Also said it would restart administering the shots from March 19.
Restarted administering the vaccine on March 19, currently for over 65-year-olds only.
The health minister said on March 18 that the country would resume using the vaccine that week.
Health Minister Venko Filipce said on March 31 that AstraZeneca shots would be limited to people aged over 60 as a precautionary measure.
President Moon Jae-in received the vaccine on March 23 ahead of an overseas trip, as the country inoculates senior citizens and health workers.
Spain said on March 30 it would use the vaccine for people aged 55-65, and a day later said it would extend the vaccination to essential workers over 65 years old.
Resumed use of the vaccine on March 25 for people aged 65 and older, its health agency said, but restrictions are in place for Swedes under 65 years.
Began use on March 15, with Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha becoming the first to be inoculated, after Thailand delayed rollout the week before.
VACCINE USE SUSPENDED
Suspended use of one batch of the vaccine on March 7 after the death of one person and the illness of another.
Suspended administration of the vaccine it was scheduled to receive on March 20 as part of the global vaccines sharing scheme COVAX, the health ministry said.
Will prolong its suspension of the shot by three weeks pending further investigations after its two-week pause ended on March 25. A local survey indicated that one in three Danes would decline to get the shot.
Norway will delay a decision over the use of the vaccine, authorities said on March 26, with a decision expected by April 15.
Temporarily stopped vaccinating people with one batch of the vaccine on March 11.