Australia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly has defended the decision to roll out the AstraZeneca vaccine in the wake of concerns about its effectiveness.
Infectious diseases experts have joined medics in calling for authorities to halt the rollout in favour of coronavirus vaccines with higher efficacy rates to ensure herd immunity.
This follows results from several trials that showed that the Oxford University-AstraZeneca jab had an efficacy rate of between 62-90 per cent depending on the doses.
Professor Kelly said AstraZeneca vaccine was well above the World Health Organisation’s 50 per cent efficacy threshold.
“All of the three vaccines that have so far published their data in peer-viewed journals – AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna – show a very significant effect against severe illness,” he said on Wednesday.
“They’re all good at protecting against severe illness and death. That’s why I say that lives will be saved by the AstraZeneca vaccine, I have no doubt about it.”
He conceded he was troubled by what he called “selective” reporting over AstraZeneca’s efficacy, warning it could undermine confidence in the jab.
“Confidence is absolutely the most important thing, and that’s what worries me about the coverage we had today in relation to the AstraZeneca vaccine,” he said.
“People will be nervous, of course. We need to give more information and we’re doing that. So I am worried about the selective use of the data that we have.”
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is expected to approve the Pfizer vaccine by the end of January, with a rollout pencilled for mid to late February for five million Australians in priority groups.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is expected to have completed the approval process in February.
Professor Kelly said the jab would prevent death and severe illness 100 per cent of the time, like the Pfizer vaccine.
He said both vaccines would only be rolled out if they had the full tick for safety, efficacy and production quality.
“The EU has also pre-purchased 400 million doses of AstraZeneca, the US has pre-purchased 300 million doses of AstraZeneca, and the UK 100 million doses of AstraZeneca. So we‘re not an outlier there,” he said.
The UK has already begun immunising people with the jab under emergency approvals.
Most Australians are expected to get the AstraZeneca vaccine because it can be made in Melbourne, unlike the Pfizer vaccine that has to be imported from overseas due to its mRNA technology.
Infectious diseases physician Professor Peter Collignon told Sunrise that the AstraZeneca vaccine might not be as good as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
But he said those would be in short supply because they were not readily available and had to be stored in minus temperatures.
“I would be all for rolling out this (AstraZeneca) vaccine because it is much better than anything that is going to be available for quite a while,” Professor Collignon said.
Health Minister Greg Hunt on Tuesday refuted claims the government was conceding its vaccine strategy would not provide herd immunity.
“This is what the medical expert panel of Australia, the one that has helped keep us safe, has recommended,” Mr Hunt said.
In the wake of efficacy concerns, Labor leader Anthony Albanese told 2GB that the government should have invested in six vaccine candidates instead of three.
The opposition has long called for the rollout of the vaccine to be brought forward following the approval process.
But Mr Albanese said the party had never argued that authorities should circumvent the TGA process.
“We need to listen to the experts,” he said.
“Once it (the TGA) approves it, the vaccine should be rolled out.”