Australian scientists suggest delaying AstraZeneca vaccine as infections fall

·3-min read

By Swati Pandey

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Some Australian scientists have proposed delaying mass inoculation using AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine with a view to considering a different shot instead.

Questions surrounding the vaccine in Australia, which recorded just one new local case of the novel coronavirus on Wednesday, have cast a cloud over its immunisation plans, with 53 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine already on order.

Experts cited data showing the AstraZeneca shot, co-developed with Oxford University, had 62% efficacy compared with more than 90% for a vaccine developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech.

"The question is really whether it (AstraZeneca) is able to provide herd immunity. We are playing a long game here. We don't know how long that will take," said Professor Stephen Turner, president of the Australian and New Zealand Society for Immunology (ASI).

Turner said the government must pivot towards getting more of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

Earlier, he told the Sydney Morning Herald that the AstraZeneca vaccine is not one "I would be deploying widely because of that lower efficacy."

In a statement, the ASI said Turner was speaking as an expert in immunology and that the body did not advocate a pause to the rollout as widely reported by local media.

Australia has agreed to buy 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, though neither AstraZeneca nor Pfizer have approval from the country's drug regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

An AstraZeneca spokesman said the company "has always maintained that the world will need several safe and effective vaccines and other medicines to combat this deadly global pandemic."

He said peer-reviewed trial results on efficacy exceed the minimum threshold set by the World Health Organization as well as that set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval.

"AstraZeneca has full confidence in the rigorous and robust processes governing the approval and rollout of vaccination programmes in Australia," the spokesman added.

Its vaccine is approved in Argentina, Britain and India and is under review in several other countries including Brazil and South Korea.

'EFFECTIVE, SAFE, HIGH QUALITY'

Australia's chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, attempted to address concerns around the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine, calling it "effective", "safe" and "high quality".

"The great advantage of the AstraZeneca vaccine is it's being made here in Australia," Kelly said. "It will be available as soon as the TGA gives its tick, which we expect that it will in February."

Kelly said Australia would have more data by February as well as "real-world information" coming from London, which has already rolled out the vaccine.

Australia has been more successful than many other countries in managing the pandemic, with total infections in the country of 25 million people at about 28,600, with 909 deaths. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)

Its success is largely attributable to closed borders and widespread compliance with social-distancing rules, along with aggressive testing and tracing programmes.

Given the low case numbers and community transmission rates, some experts say Australia could afford to wait for a more effective vaccine.

"The government needs to be flexible in its rollout decisions once we have a better understanding of the efficacy of the other vaccines," said Adrian Esterman, chair of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the University of South Australia.

Australia recorded one new local coronavirus case in its most populous state of New South Wales on Wednesday.

In Queensland, hundreds of hotel quarantine guests were forced to restart their isolation after a handful of cases in the facility were linked to the highly contagious virus strain prevalent in Britain.

(Additional reporting by Ludwig Burger; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Sam Holmes, Mike Collett-White and Barbara Lewis)

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