Australians will be offered free COVID-19 vaccine shots from January 2021 as part of a $1.7 billion program announced today by the Federal Government.
The deal provides early access to one of the world’s most promising vaccine candidates, developed by Oxford University and Astrazeneca, should advanced trials and ‘late-stage testing’ prove successful.
“There are no guarantees that these vaccines will prove successful, however the agreement puts Australia at the top of the queue if our medical experts give the vaccines the green light,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, reaffirming that “Australians will gain free access to a COVID-19 vaccine” if the trials are successful.
An estimated 3.8 million doses of the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine would be available the first two months of 2021 for vulnerable Australians and front-line healthcare workers.
The deal also covers another vaccine under development by the University of Queensland using its ‘molecular clamp’ technology, although this remains in early ‘phase 1’ clinical trials and, pending approval, is not expected to be ready until mid-2021.
Around 84 million doses of both coronavirus vaccines would be produced across 2021, with most manufacturing done at Melbourne’s CSL.
The high production quantity is partly due to the need for two injections of either vaccine: an initial dose would be followed by a booster dose within weeks.
Around 30 million doses would also be distributed to many of Australia’s Pacific island neighbours and some South-East Asian countries.
While the government has no power to enforce vaccination, it would likely adopt all possible measures to encourage the jab, such as making it mandatory for travel, attending school and other activities.
It’s estimated that to reach ‘herd immunity’ status, 80-90% of the population would need to be vaccinated.
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Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed today it had signed a 'letter of intent' to secure 25 million doses of the vaccine being developed by Oxford University and British-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca if it proves successful in human trials.
Those trials were already “well advanced,” Morrison said during a tour of AstraZeneca’s Sydney laboratory.
Every Australian would be eligible for a free vaccine shot, with Morrison saying the injections would be “as mandatory as possible.”
“The Oxford vaccine is one of the most advanced and promising in the world, and under this deal we have secured early access for every Australian," he said.
This would allow the country’s borders to reopen for Australians with a vaccination certificate potentially pasted into their passport, and remove the need for them to enter mandatory quarantine on their return.
“To fully open the international border without any quarantining or any restrictions probably will require a vaccine to be able to adequately protect vulnerable people in the community and if we get enough vaccine to develop sufficient herd immunity,” Department of Health secretary Professor Brendan Murphy has previously remarked.
What is the Oxford COVID-19 vaccine?
Oxford University’s vaccine is one of more than 165 being developed around the worlds in an unprecedented global push, although only 31 are currently in human trials.
Considered one of the more promising candidates, the Oxford vaccine has already entered large-scale tests, alongside a placebo, in England, the USA, India, Brazil and South Africa to both determine its efficacy as well as identify any rare side-effects which may have been missed in the initial safety trials.
The United States has awarded the project US$1.2 billion in support, while the European Union has an agreement in place with AstraZeneca to deliver 400 million doses following positive test results.
The CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, conducted early trials of the Oxford vaccine at its biosecurity facility in Geelong, Victoria, while also evaluating the best way to administer the vaccine for better protection, from intra-muscular injection to innovative approaches such as a nasal spray.
However, Liz Chatwin, AstraZeneca’s Australia country president, sounded a note of caution over the vaccine’s prospects, saying there was "no guarantee that this vaccine will protect against COVID-19.”
“We don't even know how long the protection may last, or at what dosage,” she added. “The science and the data is the priority in the next few months.”
Morrison said he expects deals to be put in place for other promising vaccines, rather than “putting all its eggs in one basket.”
The government has also allocated $5 million toward a vaccine built using the University of Queensland’s patented ‘molecular clamp’ technology.
“We are certainly picking our best candidates first and the AstraZeneca one is the first of many,” says Acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly, due to its advanced stage of testing.
Fast-tracking the COVID-19 vaccine
The CSIRO notes that due to the global spread and impact of COVID-19, a new approach is being adopted to quickly create effective vaccines.
"Vaccine development usually follows a series of linear steps because of the high costs and failure rate. Then, the potential vaccine has to be approved for use by relevant regulatory bodies and then manufactured in sufficient amounts and distributed around the world."
"If we were to follow this approach, a traditional vaccine could take more than 10 years to be developed – this is not fast enough for a COVID-19 vaccine. Developing a vaccine quickly and safely needed a new model."
These are the steps which researchers are taking to accelerate vaccine production:
- streamline the process and undertake various stages of development at the same time
- fund as many vaccine candidates as possible using a range of different approaches and technologies
- have trials running at a number of locations around the world
- build manufacturing capacity to be able to meet demand.
Read more: Making a vaccine for COVID-19
When will the COVID-19 vaccine be available?
If broad trials of the Oxford vaccine are considered successful, it would need to be assessed and approved by the Australian Department of Health’s Therapeutic Goods Administration.
Morrison noted that the vaccine would have to satisfy "all the same standards that all vaccines are expected to live up to here in Australia” before being made available to the public, with no “cutting corners” or “undue haste.”
Once that happens, high-rate local manufacturing of the vaccine would begin and "we would hope that this (vaccine) would be made available early next year,” Morrison said.
"If it can be done sooner than that, great. But we are very much in the hands of people wearing white coats… they’ve been doing tremendous work, not just here but all around the world, and we're putting our hope in their science.”
Who will be eligible for the free COVID-19 vaccine?
All Australians will be able to receive a free vaccine shot against COVID-19, and Kelly says "I'm sure there will be long queues – socially distanced, of course – for this vaccine.”
Former CMO and now Secretary of the Department of Health, Professor Brendan Murphy, is heading an expert panel to determine who will receive the vaccine first.
“Your priority, naturally, would start with the elderly and the health workers and those with special needs,” suggests Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt – including the most at-risk categories such as those over 60, people with asthma or heart disease, transplant recipients and cancer patients.
While the cost of the 'free for all' vaccine program was not revealed, the government has also awarded a $24.7 million contract to US medical device company Becton Dickinson for 100 million needles and syringes to ensure the vaccine's national roll-out is not delayed by any worldwide shortage of consumables.
Will the COVID-19 vaccine be mandatory?
Morrison said he wants any COVID-19 vaccine to be “as mandatory as possible” so that the country can reach herd immunity status.
“I'm advised we'll need about a 95% vaccination rate across the country – that is the normal target range for when you're having a vaccination program and we'll be seeking to ensure that that is widely implemented.”
People with “precise medical reasons” would be exempt "but that should be the only basis.”
“I would expect it to be as mandatory as you can possibly make it," Morrison said, although he later clarified his position to say “it's not going to be compulsory to get the vaccine. There are no compulsory vaccines in Australia."
That said, Morrison described the coronavirus as "a pandemic that has destroyed the global economy and taken the lives of hundreds of thousands all around the world and over 400 Australians here, so we need the most extensive and comprehensive response to this to get Australia back to normal."