Our vaccine rollout was destined to fail before it even begun. It was designed with outdated thinking and poor choices – both in procurement and distribution. So what did countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel and others do differently to Australia that saw them vaccinate their populations so much faster than we did?
How is it that these countries – whose infection and death rates were so much higher than ours last year – were able to roll their vaccines out so much more efficiently than we did? The answer lies in both the ordering and distribution of vaccines. They ordered more vaccines earlier, built in insurance and distributed the vaccines efficiently and conveniently.
And despite being told we were at the head of the queue, Australia was not. We ordered too few vaccines and chose a cumbersome distribution method.
In January, a briefing was offered to Labor MPs on the Government’s vaccine roll out. When the time for questions came, I asked the senior health official why had the government not done a deal with Moderna? It was proving to already have excellent results in the United States and was even the vaccine administered to the newly elected Vice-President, Kamala Harris. The answer shocked me. The senior health official was dismissive and pointed to a policy hinging on AstraZeneca being the predominant vaccine for Australia, and the ability to manufacture vaccines locally.
Obviously, as the party of manufacturing Labor supports locally made vaccines – we’ve even committed to locally manufacturing mRNA vaccines, like Pfizer. But it was abundantly clear the Government was not building in contingencies in case something went wrong with AstraZeneca. This is staggering when you consider we had a perfect warning after the University of Queensland’s vaccine candidate was abandoned when false positives of HIV were detected in its trial participants.
By November 2020, the United States had signed deals with Pfizer, Moderna, Janssen, Sanofi, Novavax and AstraZeneca. The United States had ordered 1.2 billion doses of vaccines with options built into their contracts to purchase more. They have also subsequently purchased another 300 million doses since November – many of which they will give to other countries.
By November 2020, the United Kingdom had signed deals for almost 400 million vaccines from a combination of Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Janssen, Novavax, Valneva and Sanofi. What about Australia? We cancelled our order with the University of Queensland, did a deal with AstraZeneca and signed a deal with Novavax that was going to be delivered in the back half of 2021. In other words, before our vaccine rollout even started, we had put all our eggs in the AstraZeneca basket. The only insurance we had was a small order of 10 million doses of Pfizer, that was not enough to cover even half the country in case anything went wrong.
We then hurried to order another 10 million doses of Pfizer in November 2020, and then waited until we had already missed the first distribution target of 4 million doses by April before we did deals to secure Pfizer and Moderna contracts in April and May of 2021.
Then there’s the distribution – Labor was calling for mass vaccination hubs to be set up to mirror the way that the US, UK and Israel managed their rollouts. There, vaccines are distributed through local hubs, set up in carparks, shopping centres and even stadiums, a pharmacy or at a GP clinic. But Australia prioritised setting up the GP clinics first, with a limited number of hubs belatedly set up and still no pharmacies allowed to administer the vaccine – despite them administering the flu vaccine every year.
This put more burden on GP clinics, who were given a drip-feed of limited vaccines to rollout and were flooded with people attempting to book in. Rather than take responsibility for these failures, the Government appears to be backgrounding that it was all Health Secretary Brendan Murphy’s fault, with SKY News’ political reporter, Andrew Clennell, saying on air, “What I’m led to believe is that Brendan Murphy has been a big problem here. Scott Morrison and Greg Hunt have listened to him and it has been their folly… he opposed a plan by Gladys Berejiklian to have the vaccinations in stadiums, he’s opposed the plan to have pharmacies do the vaccinations or at least push them out. He’s opposed the regional quarantine idea, and he was confident in the AstraZeneca solution.”
All of this shows that Australia’s vaccine debacle wasn’t an accident, it was the result of bad design and bad decisions made by the Australian Government. Our success in suppressing the virus in 2020 meant we weren’t overwhelmed with the pandemic response. The Federal Government should have used that time to ensure we had a rapid and efficient vaccine rollout ready to restore us to a post-pandemic normal. Instead, we didn’t do enough deals, we chose a distribution method that was too slow and failed to replicate what was working around the world.
As we face some of the most challenging days of this pandemic, it’s hard to think of a bigger failure of public policy in peacetime Australia than the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out. Even more frustrating is that it didn’t have to be this way.
Josh Burns MP is the Federal Member for Macnamara
This article was originally published in The Australian on Friday, 16th July 2021