'Too slow': Vaccine expert hits out over rollout failures

As the federal and state governments feud over Australia's behind-schedule Covid-19 vaccine rollout, a leading expert says the Morrison government has "only got themselves to blame" for failures after receiving ample warnings in the past 12 months.

NSW and Queensland have both reacted angrily to suggestions from the Morrison government individual states were responsible for a bungled rollout.

So far 670,000 vaccinations have been delivered with Prime Minister Scott Morrison previously saying four million should have been administered by now.

A nurse receives the Pfizer vaccine in Townsville in early March.
Vaccine rates have fallen way behind what the federal government predicted. Source: Getty (Getty Images)

The significantly-delayed rollout is raising serious questions as to who is at fault, with no one yet to put their hands up and take responsibility.

Nationals Deputy Leader David Littleproud has riled individual states by suggesting they have lacked urgency in the rollout, telling them to "pull their finger out" and accused them of stockpiling vaccines.

Yet an enraged Queensland Deputy Premier Steven Miles said his state did not have a guaranteed supply from the federal government.

"[Mr Littleproud] said that if the federal government needs to do better, then they should get an uppercut. Well, it's time that he should give himself an uppercut,” he said.

And NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard delivered a similar rebuke, saying he was "extremely angry", dismissing reports his state has used only half of the 190,610 doses it had received.

Vaccines expert Nikolai Petrovsky from the College of Medicine and Public Health at South Australia's Flinders University said the federal government's projections were never realistic and were "based on wishful thinking rather than any real logic".

He said several factors had contributed to the delays affecting the rollout.

Professor Petrovsky said he and others warned the federal government vaccine nationalism would impact Australia as nations looked to meet their own demand, but they were ignored.

As predicted, early in March the European Union halted AstraZeneca exports to Australia as its members struggled with their own rollouts. Only 735,000 of the 3.8 million doses arranged had been delivered at that stage.

Yet Health Minister Greg Hunt reassured the public production of the AstraZeneca on our shores was imminent and there was nothing to worry about.

Federal government's lack of options affects rollout

Yet Prof Petrovsky questioned the government's decision to exclusively give pharmaceutical giant CSL the contract for manufacturing vaccines – all 50 million AstraZeneca jabs.

"CSL are not a vaccine developer and notably, despite their size and funding, did not even attempt to develop their own vaccine instead choosing to take the easier path of just manufacturing vaccines developed by others," he told Yahoo News Australia.

"There are no surprises that the two vaccines CSL partnered with to manufacture turned out to be the two worst, the University of Queensland vaccine completely failing because not enough thought had gone into the use of an HIV tag, and the Astra Zeneca vaccine struggling because of poor effectiveness relative to the other vaccines."

He said the failure to sign an early contract with Pfizer for a supply far greater than the 20 million doses was a mistake, pointing to Israel's rollout success.

"It was too slow to go outside of giving massive contracts to CSL to engage with non-CSL aligned vaccines such as Pfizer, and secure these contracts, so by the time they did move late last year they were at the back of the line and hence were only going to get a dribble.

Professor Nikolai Petrovsky says the federal government were warned about complications that would ensue during the rollout. Source: Supplied
Professor Nikolai Petrovsky says the federal government were warned about complications that would ensue during the rollout. Source: Supplied

He claimed the Department of Health had an "incestuous relationship" with CSL, meaning it was reluctant to establish multiple domestic vaccine manufacturers which meant Australia lacked multiple supply sources.

"They have only got themselves to blame for failures in their vaccine program."

When questioned on Prof Petrovsky's claims, a Department of Health spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia its vaccine portfolio was "diverse".

"The Australian Government is committed to providing all Australians with a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine," they said.

"The Australian Government’s decision to invest in a COVID-19 vaccine is driven by the combination of evidence-based scientific advice from medical experts."

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has in recent days expressed her concern about supplies of vaccines.

Her government wants federal authorities to publish daily figures on the number of vaccinations and the supply of vaccines to each state and territory, to provide greater transparency.

"If the Commonwealth can tell us what their supply is, we are more than happy to roll out the rest of that as quickly as possible," Mr Miles said.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian blasted the state's vaccination target as "impossible" unless the federal government works with NSW to deliver 100 vaccine hubs.

“I had no option, I need to defend my state," Ms Berejiklian told 2GB.

“I’ve said to the Commonwealth … you’ve only asked us to do 300,000 vaccines out of six million. Surely we can help do more. I just don’t understand why they wouldn’t want us to work with them together.

"“We’re just saying ‘let us help’ … but to date I haven’t had a positive response.”

AstraZeneca fears hamper public uptake

The administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine was suspended across several countries last month over concerns of adverse reactions, including unusual blood clotting.

“The AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is effective, it is safe, and it’s a high-quality vaccine," Chief Health Officer Paul Kelly stressed in the wake of those decisions.

Prof Petrsovsky said such moves across Europe had undoubtedly introduced an element of fear within the public and the government's insistence the vaccine was completely safe was wrong.

"There is no such thing as absolute safety and instead all vaccines are approved based on a risk-benefit analysis," he said.

"The government if they want to be taken seriously need to be more honest in their communication as the Australian population is well educated and not stupid, and know when what they are being told is not accurate."

A Department of Health spokesperson stressed to Yahoo News Australia the AstraZeneca vaccine was safe and its rollout was being carefully monitored by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

"Australia has a strong and well-established safety monitoring system for vaccines and robust procedures to quickly detect, investigate and respond to potential safety issues if they arise," a TGA spokesperson said.

"The TGA will only approve a product if its benefits outweigh its risks, including any side effects a patient may experience."

Mr Morrison and Mr Hunt have continuously stressed the rollout will be completed by October.

The Department of Health told Yahoo News Australia "most people" will be vaccinated by that point.

"Our strategy is that every adult living in Australia will have been offered a vaccine by the end of October."

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