SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australia is holding a national cabinet meeting on Friday to devise a new COVID-19 vaccination programme after abruptly changing policy and recommending people under 50 take the Pfizer vaccine not AstraZeneca due to the risks of blood clots.
The move sees Australia joining countries around the world which have put restrictions on one of the most widely accessible vaccines against the coronavirus over concern about links to very rare blood clots. Australia will now seek tens of millions more doses of Pfizer’s product.
Plans to vaccinate Australia’s 25 million population by the end of October would be pushed back, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday in announcing the change.
The country’s most populous state New South Wales said it was pausing the AstraZeneca rollout to update “informed consent” documents.
“We need to work through what the implications are for that changed circumstance,” Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly told cable television station Sky News.
“Nothing’s off the table. We’re continuing to talk with multiple vaccine (manfacturers) around the world, particularly those that have completed their trials,” added Kelly.
Australian authorities switched their recommendation after European regulators reiterated the possibility of links between AstraZeneca’s shot and blood clots. More than a dozen countries have at one time suspended use of the vaccine, but most have resumed, with some, including France, the Netherlands and Germany, recommending a minimum age.
Australia’s most populous state suspends AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine
Australia had ordered 20 million imported doses of the Pfizer vaccine, enough for 10 million people, but had banked on the AstraZeneca product for the majority of shots with biopharma CSL Ltd contracted to make 50 million doses domestically.
Pfizer remained committed to delivering all 20 million doses by the end of 2021 and the Australians were already talking to the company about upping its order, Kelly noted.
AstraZeneca said in a statement that it respected the Australian decision and was working with regulators around the world “to understand the individual cases, epidemiology and possible mechanisms that could explain these extremely rare events”.
CSL said it remained committed to meeting its contracted arrangements with Australia and AstraZeneca to make the vaccine “which remains critical for the protection of our most vulnerable populations”.
As well as the AstraZeneca and Pfizer contracts, Australia ordered 51 million doses of a vaccine being trialled by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Novavax Inc, but local authorities say they do not expect to approve the product until late 2021.
Australia also embarked on a home-grown option – as opposed to local manufacture of AstraZeneca’s offshore-developed product – with University of Queensland undertaking a trial of its own vaccine. That trial was aborted in December when the product was linked to false positives in HIV tests.
After saying Australia had 150 million vaccine doses on order, enough for several times the population, the government said in January that it planned to have four million vaccinated by the end of March, only to have 600,000 by that time.
“Australians won’t forget who is responsible for failing to deliver on what are his own promises and his own commitments,” opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese told reporters on Friday.
“They should have listened to the expert advice that was given to the government, and indeed to all governments, about not placing all our eggs in one basket”.
Health Minister Greg Hunt told Sky News the government had intentionally spread its exposure to several vaccines under development because of the unusual nature of the coronavirus.
“Nobody knew which vaccines would be successful,” he said.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who agreed this week to allow quarantine-free visits by travellers from neighbouring Australia, said the country was still assessing the AstraZeneca vaccine, without specifying whether the Australian decision would affect it.
The Pfizer vaccine is the only inoculation approved by New Zealand, which says it has ordered enough for its five million population.
Australia began vaccinations later than some other countries because of its low number of infections, which stand at just under 29,400, with 909 deaths, since the pandemic began.