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Australia has vaccines. Why aren’t people taking them?

The rapidly spreading Delta variant has forced nearly half of Australia’s population back into lockdown. The slow uptake of vaccinations has been pointed to as a key factor behind the latest outbreaks, and how fast they spread.

The rapidly spreading Delta variant has forced nearly half of Australia’s population back into lockdown, and it’s not clear when the restrictions might end.

The slow uptake of vaccinations has been pointed to as a key factor behind the latest outbreaks, and how fast they spread.

But why is vaccine uptake so slow in Australia?

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton on how shifting medical advice, poor communication and careless journalism created a perfect storm for this latest wave of Covid-19.

 

Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

BETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Beth Atkinson-Quinton, This is 7am.

The rapidly spreading Delta variant has forced nearly half of Australia’s population back into lockdown, and it’s not clear when the restrictions might end.

 

The slow uptake of vaccinations has been pointed to as a key factor behind the latest outbreaks, and how fast they spread.

But why is vaccine uptake so slow in Australia?

Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton on how shifting medical advice, poor communication and careless journalism created a perfect storm for this latest wave of Covid-19.

[Theme Music Ends]

BETH:

Rick, right now, more than 10 million Australians are in lockdown, again. We've talked before on the show about how this really comes down to our incredibly slow rate of vaccinations. There's some new research out there that tells us exactly why some Australians don't want to get vaccinated right now. Can you tell me about that? 

 

RICK:

Yeah, it's really bloody interesting. So there was some great data released from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and they've been doing these surveys, and it showed that more than a third of unvaccinated people aged 50 to 69 and a quarter of those people aged 70 and over were not getting vaccinated because they're waiting for a different vaccine. 

 

Now, it's important to remember that these groups, particularly the over 70s, have been eligible to be vaccinated since the middle of March.

 

BETH:

I mean, these are pretty significant statistics given where we're at right now in the pandemic. Can you break that down for me? Why are they waiting? 

 

RICK:

Well, you know, the most common vaccine in Australia right now is AstraZeneca. It's actually quite an effective vaccine.

 

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter #1: 

“The UK was placing its bets in a great vaccine gamble that today is paying off…”

 

RICK:

It's the primary vaccine that was rolled out in the United Kingdom and it really helped break the back of their outbreak there.  

 

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2: 

“These were among tens of thousands who turned out in socially distanced lines across England to claim their Covid vaccines during a weekend of walk-in appointments…”

 

RICK:

They had a massive outbreak at the time and people were really desperate to get vaccinated.

 

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter #2: 

“Nearly 189,000 people have had their second dose of the vaccine in the latest 24 hour period. That means more than 31 million people or 59% of UK adults are now fully vaccinated.”

 

RICK:

And, yes, there have still been thousands of cases every day. But the severity we've been seeing decline, particularly in the most severe categories of, you know, ICU intensive care hospitalisations or people needing ventilators. 

 

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter #3: 

“Two studies out of the UK show Covid 19 vaccinations led to a sharp drop in hospitalisations, encouraging news as vaccinations ramp up...”

 

RICK:

In Australia, things have been very different. So even though we have a decent supply of AstraZeneca, there's been a lot of mixed and confusing messaging about the vaccine's efficacy and the health risks, which have led to a situation where millions of Australians who could be getting vaccinated right now and could have been getting vaccinated since March just aren't because they want a different vaccine.

 

And in fact, the person who sparked this current outbreak in Sydney, which has now seeded into Melbourne, a single person, a limousine driver in his 60s, was unvaccinated because he told one reporter he didn't want to get the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

 

BETH:

And Rick, what's driving this, this hesitancy to take up AstraZeneca, even though it could have potentially saved us from these outbreaks?

 

RICK:

Yeah, this one is a real thorny issue. So initially the vaccine was approved for everyone to use. But then we learnt about this risk of blood clots. 

 

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter #4: 

“The issue is whether the AstraZeneca vaccine is affecting platelet levels in those inoculated. ‘Platelets’ is what helps blood to clot...”

 

RICK:

A small number of people, a really small number of people who had received the AstraZeneca vaccine developed those symptoms. Now ATAGI, which is the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, they provide advice to the government on vaccines and how to use them. They were getting more data that showed a younger age profile, more people in their 50s getting these kind of clotting conditions. They call it TTS. So they changed the advice based on this new data. 

 

Archival tape -- Unidentified Commentator #1: 

“And what they’ve determined is that even though there are very rare cases in under 50s, that it's nevertheless important to provide the advice that the preferred vaccine for under 50’s would be Pfizer,”  

 

RICK:

But the news of that clotting risk and the constantly shifting advice necessarily had really done a lot of damage to the brand, to the product. 

 

Archival tape -- Unidentified Commentator #1: 

“Today after reviewing the latest evidence, they have recommended an increase in the age range for those who should be using AstraZeneca from 50 to 60 and above.”

 

RICK:

And the kicker is that at the end of June, scientists from Germany authored a paper which provides really compelling evidence that the clotting syndrome associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine could actually be the result of how the vaccine is injected, rather than the actual chemical structure of the vaccine itself. 

 

So the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia, which is the regulator for these things, I asked them, they're aware of this paper and they are actually considering that as we speak. 

 

BETH:

Right, ok, and alongside the confused messaging from the federal government about the risks of that vaccine - what role has the media played here? 

 

RICK:

So we've seen a lot of hyperbolic reporting about the risks of the vaccine and its efficacy. Now, no one is saying you should have hidden that from people, but every time there's been, you know, a suspected clotting case or an actual clotting case it's been kind of like above the fold front page headline news. 

 

Archival tape -- Unidentified Reporter #5:

“Australia’s vaccine rollout is tonight under a cloud after a Melbourne man was rushed to hospital with blood clots just days after receiving the AstraZeneca jab…”

 

RICK:

And then we've got high profile figures like the ABC's Dr Norman Swan,who has become a voice of kind of perceived authority throughout this pandemic and is really trusted, especially by the ABC's older audience. 

 

Archival tape -- Norman Swan:

“What's really hobbled the Astra vaccine is that there are now vaccines that are better than that, there are 90 - 95% effective, and it's possible the Astra vaccine could get to that level but there is no data yet to show that's the case.”

 

RICK:

And he claimed that the ‘core trial’ of AstraZeneca in Brazil showed only 62% efficacy. Now, ignoring the fact that the regulators in the United States said any vaccine for Covid-19 with efficacy above 50% would be pretty good. The Brazil trial was one part of the entire AstraZeneca trial, and he was ignoring essentially the published results in the respected medical journal The Lancet that showed at the time an average of the efficacy of 70%, which included the results from the UK trial and that scored an efficacy of 90%. 

 

And, later studies, which had more than 20,000 participants, revealed that AstraZeneca is about 81.3% effective, with two doses, 12 weeks apart. 

 

But many had already made up their minds. You know, it was too late for subsequent information to kind of change their thinking. They had decided that Australia had purchased a dud vaccine. 

 

Now, Swan would later concede in an interview with the old Fairfax newspapers, and I'm quoting him here, ‘Fair cop. I probably did cause some vaccine hesitancy.’ 

 

BETH:

Okay so there is this small medical risk involved in getting the AstraZeneca vaccine, but the way that it's been reported on is really the big factor in feeding a lot of hesitancy. And so, we’re seeing a lot of people who are eligible for the AstraZeneca vaccine not take it up, is that right?

 

RICK:

Basically, but it also points to a bigger problem, and that is the fact that we are so reliant on a particular vaccine. Now, these things happen, especially when vaccines are being produced so quickly.

 

And the best solution, you know, when we're dealing with the amazing race for vaccines is to hedge your bets, and secure as many different options as possible to deal with this kind of situation, because there will be issues that pop up along the way. And it's just not something the Australian government did. 

 

BETH:

We’ll be right back.

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BETH:

Rick, we’ve been talking about how Australia’s vaccine rollout has been set back by confusion and mixed messaging around AstraZeneca, which is the vaccine we have the most supply of. But how did we become so reliant on it in the first place?

 

RICK:

OK, so it's hard to look at the problems with the vaccine rollout without first going back to where it all started, going back to the original sin, which is something I keep talking about, which is supply, and our failure to account for worst case scenarios, or to even just go out there and buy as much as you can of whatever you can. 

 

So when the government was developing its vaccine roadmap there were a few main options - one of them of course was AstraZeneca which came out of the University of Oxford. Now, AstraZeneca appealed to the government because we could manufacture it here using our local labs at CSL. 

 

AstraZeneca’s CEO, by the way, was also living in Sydney at the time. So, you know, there was that kind of closeness that can allow these arguments to be had. And that was one of the real reasons. Certainly, according to some researchers in Australia, they think that the CEO of AstraZeneca living in Sydney, the fact that it was a British product - Oxford University is very highly regarded - they were showing promising signs in their studies, and we can manufacture it locally. That was the major thing the Australian government wanted. 

 

And, you know, there's been a lot of backwards and forwards about kind of finger pointing about why we didn't get more Pfizer early on. I do think it was a huge oversight that we didn't, and certainly that we didn't argue when apparently we were offered the 10 million doses by Pfizer. You know, there were suggestions the government was trying to cut costs by going with AstraZeneca, which Brendan Murphy and the health department have strenuously denied. But there's also been these reports that Pfizer just didn't want to meet our needs because they felt disrespected by the way the government was handling the negotiations. They felt that Scott Morrison should have picked up the phone to the global leadership and that he didn't. And they were a little bit put out by that.

 

But that's what happened. And you know, what was clear, I guess, out of all of this is that Australia went very hard, very early for AstraZeneca to the detriment of securing supply of other vaccines. 

 

BETH:

And so where does this leave us right now, Rick? You know, given the risks of AstraZeneca or at least this perceived risk that we've spoken about contributing to vaccine hesitancy and all the people that are waiting for a different vaccine, is there movement on securing these other options? 

 

RICK:

Yeah, it would appear to be the case. So earlier this month, Scott Morrison announced that Australia would be getting some of its Pfizer allocation brought forward. So we'd be getting access to more of it sooner than we otherwise would have. And that's supposed to happen actually in the next couple of days, over the weekend just gone. 

 

So some of the government’s Pfizer order has been fast tracked is what we can kind of say out of that. So we are due to receive 4.5 million doses of Pfizer in August. And, of course, it ticks up again throughout the year. But what we needed was something sooner. 

 

So the proof is in the pudding, of course. And there's been a lot of opacity about the vaccine numbers in this country. So I'm not going to believe it until we see it. And even then, I'd like to see some more clear reporting about precisely how many vials are in the country. 

 

BETH:

Mmm. Okay, so it sounds like we're basically in a holding pattern right now. We have a supply of AstraZeneca, but either you're being advised against receiving it because you're too young, or you won't take it because you're waiting for another vaccine. But we aren't sure when that will happen. Please tell me there's good news on the horizon. 

 

RICK:

I'm a good news kind of guy. I mean, it's not ideal up to this moment, but there has been some good news in the past fortnight. 

 

So the focus has been on AstraZeneca and Pfizer because that's all we've had available all year. But there's actually a bunch of other vaccines that might land here. And the Australian government did do a deal with the American company Novavax for about 50 million doses of its product. 

 

Now, that hasn't been ready for approval in Australia, but their clinical trials, phase three, the final analysis came in about a fortnight ago and they published that in a medical journal showing it was 90% effective against variants of Covid, including the much maligned, now infamous Delta strain and 96.4% effective against the original strain, which is the original kind of line of Covid-19. 

 

Now this data obviously means that it will actually be ready basically to submit a request for approval through the TGA because they've got provisional approval back in January, which meant that they were allowed to approach us when they had the data. 

 

So, that's an amazing result. That's great. And they are going to bring some hope on the horizon. But, of course, as cases rise, and, you know, two biggest cities in lockdown with 11 million people stuck at home. The doses can't come soon enough. They really can't. And that's always been the problem. It's not like we're not going to have enough by the end of the year. We needed them sooner, and we just didn't have them.

 

BETH:

Thanks so much for your time, Rick. 

 

RICK:

Thanks for having me. It's always a pleasure. 

 

BETH:

To find out more about Australia’s vaccine roll out, you can read Rick Morton’s two part feature on thesaturdaypaper.com.au.

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[Theme Music Starts]

BETH:

Also in news today,

 

Nearly one million doses of the Pfizer vaccine have arrived in Australia this week, as the country ramps up its vaccine rollout.

 

Most of the vaccines will be distributed to Sydney and Melbourne as both cities grapple with growing Covid-19 outbreaks.


New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced yesterday that 98 locally acquired cases were recorded, with 20 of those infectious while in the community.

And in Victoria, 13 new local Covid-19 cases were recorded yesterday. The Premier Dan Andrews said that the current lockdown, due to expire at midnight tonight, would be extended, but did not reveal for how long.

 

I’m Beth Atkinson-Quinton, this is 7am, I’ll see you tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

 

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