AstraZeneca makes a comeback in Covid vaccine rollout race

Canberra Health Services executive director of medical services Dr Nick Coatsworth at the Garran Surge Centre. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Canberra Health Services executive director of medical services Dr Nick Coatsworth at the Garran Surge Centre. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

The tide of opinion is turning back in favour of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but more Australians need to hurry up and join the race to vax the nation, leading infectious diseases specialist Dr Nick Coatsworth says.

The former deputy chief medical officer said too many patients where he's based at the Canberra Hospital had previously expressed a preference to wait for Pfizer, despite being eligible to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Dr Coatsworth said confused messaging, particularly in regards to the safety and efficacy of AstraZeneca, put a significant proportion of the population at risk should the Delta variant continue its spread.

Mixed messaging, supply problems, and Covid complacency reported across all age groups had contributed to just short of 20 per cent of Australians being fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in the developed world.

While acknowledging health experts wouldn't completely turn public perception around, Dr Coatsworth said his sense was that the tide was turning for the AstraZeneca vaccine.

"I think it's time to correct that messaging," Dr Coatsworth said.

"If I gave someone the AstraZeneca vaccine today, it would be the least risky thing I did as a doctor."

Dr Coatsworth said people should remember that just as opting out had consequences, opting in got Australia closer to its 70 per cent target quicker.

"If one person decides to get Astra today who would otherwise have gotten Pfizer, that halves the time that we need [for that person] to get to our target," he said.

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According to Commonwealth data, the vaccine rollout has ramped up to more than 1 million doses a week in recent weeks, with the program picking up as the Delta variant spread through several states.

Should the vaccine trend continue with no major disruptions to supply, Australia could expect to have the adult population fully vaccinated by January 2022.

However, based off modelling in the United States and United Kingdom, some health experts are concerned the current pace could plateau when enthusiastic vaxxers have gotten their jab and it's time for the hesitant to step up.

Despite an initial surge in 30- to 39-year-olds, who rushed to get the AstraZeneca vaccine following a recommendation to do so from Prime Minister Scott Morrison in June, there still remains a large proportion of young Australians reportedly holding out for the Pfizer.

As Federal Parliament sat in Canberra this week, the debate turned to whether Australians should be rewarded for getting the jab.

With cash, takeaway food vouchers, event tickets and cars all being offered overseas, Labor leader Anthony Albanese put the pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison, suggesting a $300 reward for every Australian who got vaccinated before Christmas.

Dr Coatsworth said he was of the belief incentivising vaccines with cash or gifts sent the wrong message, when the real carrot being offered was Australians having the chance to enjoy all their freedoms again.

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He said what Australians really should be asking was what immunity meant for future travel plans, events and for the safety of the most vulnerable.

"If you've had a vaccine and you are immune, what can you do in society? Can you go to a football match? Can you cross state borders to see a relative a bit more easily?" Dr Coatsworth asked.

He said the trouble with the one-off incentive, whether it be a transistor radio or a cash payment, was what to then do about the early adopters who listened to health directives and got vaccinated in the correct phase.

"That sort of troubles me - I would prefer if this was framed as, 'What can you expect if you are immune?'" he said.

For the early adopters, the stamp on potential vaccine passports might be the next best incentive. Dr Coatsworth said he foreshadowed widespread community support for their introduction.

"It's about the balance between how forceful you get in terms of imposing restrictions on people who don't get vaccinated and their ability to participate effectively in society," he said.

"[However] the basic premise of getting vaccinated and having benefits from that in society - we have to get there."

This story AstraZeneca makes a comeback in vaccine rollout race first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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