Australia’s mixed messages on Covid vaccines sow confusion

Health, Fitness & Food

Australia’s vaccine rollout has been slow and chaotic, with government leaders and health advisors sending out mixed messages.

The country’s top professional body for doctors says it’s recommending that people follow guidance from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, when deciding which Covid vaccine to take. ATAGI advises the health minister on vaccine issues in Australia.

“We are recommending following the expert advice, but, at the end of the day, people can make their own decisions because these are all safe and effective vaccines,” Omar Khorshid, president of the Australian Medical Association, said Thursday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia.”

While Australia has had comparative success in keeping infections under control, it is facing some vaccine supply constraints. At the moment, only the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca shots are approved for use, and both require two doses for full immunization.

Mixed messaging from the Australian government and ATAGI has created confusion — and hesitancy — about the available vaccines and their safety.

What are experts saying?

ATAGI says that people between the ages of 16 and 59 years old should preferably receive Pfizer shots while the government says those people can opt for AstraZeneca after consulting their doctors.

Pfizer shots are in short supply in the country and reports say the bulk of the doses could arrive only in the third quarter.

The advisory group’s recommendation came after data showed there were higher risks and observed severity of an extremely rare blood clotting disorder — known as thrombosis and thrombocytopenia syndrome — related to the use of AstraZeneca vaccines observed in Australian adults in their 50s.

People queue outside a vaccination center in Sydney on June 24, 2021, as residents were largely banned from leaving the city to stop a growing outbreak of the highly contagious Delta Covid-19 variant spreading to other regions.
SAEED KHAN | AFP | Getty Images

For those 60 years and older, the group said the benefits of receiving the AstraZeneca dose outweighed the risks of developing blood clots.

What does the government say?

On Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that those under 60 can get the AstraZeneca vaccine if they want to, provided they discussed it with their doctors. The country will implement a new “no fault indemnity scheme” for general practitioners who administer Covid-19 vaccines, he added.

“The ATAGI advice talks about a preference for AstraZeneca to be available and made available to those as preferred for those over 60. But the advice does not preclude persons under 60 from getting the AstraZeneca vaccine,” Morrison said, according to an official transcript of his press conference.

“So if you wish to get the AstraZeneca vaccine, then we would encourage you to … go and have that discussion with your GP,” he said.

Vaccine progress

Khorshid from the Australian Medical Association said that despite the mixed messaging and political tactics, the vaccine rollout is progressing relatively well. He said about two-thirds of Australia’s most vulnerable population have already received at least one dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine and are due to receive their second doses.

Still, statistics compiled by “Our World in Data” showed just over 23% of the population has received at least one dose of vaccine and only about 6% have been fully inoculated.

An aerial view of Sixty Martin Place, Sydney, Australia.
Mark Syke | View Pictures | Universal Images Group | Getty Images

Authorities are also scrambling to contain pockets of outbreak in Australia, as the country seeks to stem the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus delta variant, which was first discovered in India.

Reports said seven cities that are home to some 12 million people are now in lockdown, including Sydney, Brisbane and Perth.

Khorshid told CNBC that the medical association wants to see the national cabinet step up on broader issues such as agreements on border closures and hotel quarantine arrangements.

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