Australia’s COVID Vaccine Shortage, Explained

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Australia’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout has been written about a lot.

And if you’ve read any of the thousands of articles about it, you’ll probably have seen these two words over and over again: ‘supply shortage’.

That’s because there just haven’t been enough vaccines in Australia.

Just as other countries around the world were beginning to ease their Covid restrictions, an outbreak of the Delta variant plunged over half of Australia back into lockdowns.

The battle with that outbreak is ongoing.

COVID-19 has taken more Australian lives in the last month than it did in the nine months before it.

The response to the outbreak has shifted away from just trying to eradicate it, and more towards increasing vaccination rates to protect people from it.

In the last few months, the federal government has scrambled to increase its supply of Covid vaccines – specifically the Pfizer one – and the number of Australians who want to get vaccinated has increased.

But for a lot younger Australians in particular – some who are sitting out their sixth lockdown – the vaccine rollout has been a scary and frustrating time.

And the supply shortage has left people questioning not if they’ll get vaccinated, but when.

The Supply Shortage; Starting Slowly

Right at the start of January 2020, researchers in China released the genomic sequence of what was then a mysterious illness.

We now know it as COVID-19, and having that genomic sequence was important; it meant that scientists could begin trying to develop a vaccine that could fight it.

By July 2020, some of those vaccine candidates had reached the third phase of testing and governments all over the world were already making deals to secure access to them.

Australia’s federal government was one of them.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave a press conference back in September last year where he said that 84 million vaccine doses had been secured for Australia. And since then, three different vaccines have been approved by the TGA.

But compared to a lot of other countries, that process happened really slowly.

In the UK, the Pfizer vaccine was approved for emergency use in early December 2020, and it only took five more days for the first British person to receive it.

In Australia, it wasn’t until January 25th of this year that Pfizer became the first TGA approved Covid vaccine, and it took almost another month after that for the first Australian to receive it.

It was supposed to be the start of a staggered rollout that would have 4 million Australians vaccinated by the end of March.

But instead of 4 million, that number ended up being just 670,000 because in the global race to secure Covid vaccines, Australia’s federal government had backed the wrong one.

The Early Reliance on AstraZeneca

Vaccines have different types; AstraZeneca is a type of ‘viral vector’ vaccine, whereas Pfizer and Moderna are both ‘mRNA’ vaccines.

They all help our immune systems fight Covid, but they’re made and stored in different ways and none of the companies that can manufacture mRNA vaccines are here in Australia.

But back in August last year, a biotech company called CSL signed a deal with the Australian government to locally produce almost 84 million doses of two viral vector vaccines.

AstraZeneca was one of them. The other was a vaccine that was being developed by the University of Queensland, which became known as the UQ vaccine.

The things was, neither of those two vaccines had been approved by the TGA and by December the UQ vaccine trials had been stopped and CSL’s deal to manufacture it was scrapped.

It was a big setback to the government’s plan; 51 million doses of the 84 million it had been counting on were the UQ vaccine.

An initial order of 10 million Pfizer doses had been announced back in November. But after the UQ vaccine trials were stopped, Australia’s vaccine rollout relied primarily on the supply of just one vaccine: AstraZeneca.

The Early Supply Shortage

By the end of February this year, the TGA had approved AstraZeneca for use.

3.8 million doses of it were going to be shipped to Australia from Europe, and CSL had told the government that it would be able to ramp up its production in Melbourne to a million doses a week by the end of March.

The first 300,000 doses from Europe arrived at the end of February.

But a week later, on the same day that the first Australian got vaccinated with AstraZeneca, another shipment from Europe was blocked by the EU.

By the end of March, 3.1 million AstraZeneca doses hadn’t turned up.

CSL had released the first batch of its locally-made AstraZeneca. But it hadn’t reached its target of producing a million doses a week.

In fact it didn’t hit that target until May, and by then the AstraZeneca vaccine had hit another totally unexpected roadblock.

Blood Clots

The first cases of unusual blood clots in people who had received the AstraZeneca vaccine had started to emerge back in March.

The cases were, and still are, extremely rare.

But in a small minority they have been fatal, which is why medical bodies around the world changed their advice on who should be vaccinated with AstraZeneca.

In Australia, first anyone under fifty was advised not to receive it. That changed again to anyone under sixty when ATAGI recommended that Pfizer should become the preferred vaccine.

Up until then, all of these conversations had been playing out over months of comparatively low numbers of COVID-19 cases in Australia.

But less than two weeks after that ATAGI recommendation, the Delta outbreak emerged in New South Wales, and that changed everything.

The Delta Outbreak

The federal government had already ordered an extra 30 million doses of Pfizer from overseas earlier in the year, but at the time the Health Minister Greg Hunt had declined to give any kind of timeline on when they would arrive.

As the Delta outbreak began to grow the government changed the recommendations for AstraZeneca again, making it available for anyone under forty.

But the amount of AstraZeneca being locally produced had significantly dropped.

And the vaccine itself had taken a massive reputational hit.

In June, 16% of the overall Australian population said that they didn’t want to get any Covid vaccine at all. And a large proportion of the Australians who were willing to get vaccinated specifically wanted the Pfizer vaccine instead of the AstraZeneca one.

Doctors were reporting that they were throwing away vials and vials of unused AstraZeneca because they couldn’t find enough people to give it to.

Over the last ten weeks, despite ongoing lockdowns and restrictions getting tighter and tighter, the number of Covid cases has kept going up.

The way out of those lockdowns is through increasing vaccination rates, and the number of Australians who now don’t want to get a Covid vaccine has dropped from 16% to 8%.

CSL has now produced over 15 million AstraZeneca doses, and the TGA recently approved Moderna as the third Covid vaccine that can be given to Australians.

The first doses are scheduled to arrive later this year, and an extra 85 million Pfizer doses are also scheduled to arrive over the next two years.

But millions of Australians are feeling frustrated; in particular young Australians who weren’t prioritised early in the vaccine rollout.

Because as the Delta outbreak continues to worsen, the ongoing supply shortage has left a lot of people unsure about when they’ll be able to get protected from it.