Australia's COVID-19 vaccine rollout commences

Tuesday, 23 February, 2021

Australia's COVID-19 vaccine rollout commences

Australia’s vaccine program kicked off at the start of this week, with the country’s most vulnerable community members first off the block to receive the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine.

The global rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has been described as the biggest and most consequential product launch in modern history.

At the commencement of the rollout, Professor of Immunology at Murdoch University Dr Cassie Berry wanted to iterate the importance of vaccination against COVID-19.

“Some people are hesitant about the new vaccines; they tell me their concerns about the mutant virus strains, the novelty of the vaccines and short timeframe of a vaccination rollout in our country. However, no matter what the vaccine type, the essence of vaccination is the same. It is designed with specific intention to safely train our immune systems to win the fight against the virus, if we were to be exposed in the future. The vaccine-elicited antibodies and B cell memory will protect and prevent severe COVID,” Dr Berry explained.

“Getting vaccinated is like having a personal trainer for your immune health. Individually, the key issue is to develop long-lasting broad immunity against coronavirus and any evolving mutant strains. Collectively, we can achieve herd immunity to protect those individuals that cannot be vaccinated or have poor responses to the vaccine. Life is simply better with immunity.”

Associate Professor in Epidemiology at La Trobe University Hassan Vally said the official commencement of the rollout of the vaccines in Australia can be considered our official entry into the final phase of the pandemic.

“The availability of safe and effective vaccines adds another tool into our toolbox to fight COVID-19. As we roll out the vaccines, we start to reduce the threat COVID-19 poses to the community, which means we can more confidently transition towards post-pandemic life.

“Although there is still a lot of work to do and we have to be patient, the vaccination of frontline workers and the most vulnerable in the community will be a game changer in terms of our response to COVID-19. Crucially, the vaccination of quarantine workers will not only make escapes from hotels less likely, but if they do occur, as vulnerable populations get vaccinated, the implications of any escapes are reduced. This hopefully means that there will be less of a need for lockdowns in Australia in the future.

“As the numbers in the population that get vaccinated increase, and the overall threat the virus poses to us decreases, the need for restrictions becomes less and less. Therefore, we should look forward to being able to do all of the things we took for granted 12 months ago if we can get sufficient uptake of the vaccine by the community,” Associate Professor Vally said.

Addressing vaccine hesitancy

Professor Nikolai Petrovsky from the College of Medicine and Public Health at Flinders University and Research Director of Vaxine welcomed the availability of COVID-19 vaccines in Australia but said community uncertainty resulting in vaccine hesitancy remained a major barrier to full implementation.

“A recent ANU survey shows a significant part of the community are uncertain about whether to be vaccinated. This suggest the current government vaccine media campaign ... may not be effective and may even be counterproductive given the evidence in the survey that the level of community uncertainty has increased rather than decreased in recent months.

“A successful education campaign needs to be balanced and to address the ongoing uncertainties around the vaccines being used plus their known and potential side effects, alongside their known and potential benefits.

“The two vaccines currently on offer are based on the new use of gene therapies as vaccines, and hence the community needs to understand how these differ to traditional vaccines and what this might mean in terms of the risk–benefit relationship,” Professor Nikolai Petrovsky explained.

“There may be some in the community who upon reviewing all the available information decide to wait until more traditional protein-based vaccines become available. Protein-based vaccines have a long track record of safe and effective use for many other infections such as influenza, hepatitis B and human papilloma virus, with high levels of safety in newborn babies through to the elderly. The Australian Government has already announced planned purchases of the Novavax protein-based vaccine, which has just announced positive phase 3 efficacy data and may not be far away. Notably, the greater the diversity of vaccines on offer in Australia, the easier it should be to achieve the high vaccination rates that will be needed for maximal community protection should further local outbreaks occur.

“Ultimately, the community will be influenced by facts, so definitive data showing the vaccines remain effective long term and are able to prevent transmission should go a long way towards reducing vaccine hesitancy.”

University of Sydney infectious diseases expert Professor Tony Cunningham pointed to the safety profiles of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, highlighting that both vaccines have been subject to full, not emergency, review by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, and that phase 3 trial data and ongoing surveillance by regulatory agencies in the UK, Israel and Europe would soon be available.

“The Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccine rollout has been carefully planned to protect the community, ensuring that populations such as quarantine, healthcare and aged-care workers, as well as aged-care residents, are given first priority. Follow-up post rollout is being carefully planned in Australia,” Professor Cunningham said.

“The higher efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine of greater than 80% with a 12-week interdose interval is very encouraging and recommended by the TGA. Both vaccines appear to be effective in the latest figures from Israel and the UK, although these are preliminary and may be partly due to lockdown effects.”

Professor Cunningham said that, while the two vaccines showed reduced efficacy against the South African strain in small trials, all companies with vaccines on the market are moving swiftly to produce second-generation vaccines or boosters, as is the case with influenza annually.

Academy Fellow and health literacy researcher at the University of Sydney Professor Kirsten McCaffery highlighted the importance of broad and targeted messaging to address vaccination hesitancy.

“We need broad messaging but also targeted messages for key groups who may be more hesitant, and we need to use social media as well as mainstream media channels.

“Being respectful of people who feel uncertain about the vaccine will be important as well as being responsive to their questions and needs. Health professionals have an important role here. We must also encourage people to carefully consider the source and credibility of their health information and how it applies in Australia.

“There is a risk of overfocusing on a small minority who are strongly opposed to vaccination. This is a time for the community to come together and recognise the remarkable achievement of the vaccines that will help us get back our lives to a better normal.”

Image credit: © Kozhedub

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