By Colin Packham and Renju Jose
CANBERRA/SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia is on course to begin administering the first COVID-19 vaccines in February, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday, as the country moves to accelerate its inoculation programme as two states try to contain outbreaks.
Morrison said Australia's pharmaceutical regulator is expected to approve the use of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine by the end of January, with the first doses issued within weeks.
"We are now in a position where believe we will be able to commence vaccinations in mid-to-late February," Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
Australia earlier this week said it expected to begin COVID-19 vaccinations in March.
Australia has reported a total of just over 28,500 COVID-19 cases and 909 deaths since the pandemic began, with border closures and speedy tracking systems helping keep numbers relatively low. (Graphic: https://tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)
Authorities are trying to contain new virus clusters in its largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne.
The most populous state New South Wales, the epicentre of the country's latest outbreak, on Thursday said it recorded zero local COVID-19 infections in the past 24 hours.
Australia has ordered 10 million doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine. It has also struck a deal with AstraZeneca PLC that sees the vaccine produced locally.
Morrison said regulatory approval of the AstraZeneca vaccine is expected in February.
Once both are approved, Morrison said Australia aims to vaccinate 80,000 people each week. This would then be expanded in the following four to six weeks, and by the end of March 4 million people could be vaccinated.
The acceleration in the COVID-19 vaccination programme comes amid heightened concern about the spread of the virus globally.
Australia's national cabinet will meet a month earlier than scheduled on Friday, Morrison said, as authorities seek to stop the spread of a more contagious variant of COVID-19 that emerged in Britain. A handful of international arrivals in Australia have tested positive to the UK-strain.
The cabinet meeting will consider a proposals to strengthen travel rules for its citizens and residents returning from overseas, Morrison wrote in a Facebook post late Wednesday.
Australian media reported the government has plans to introduce mandatory COVID-19 testing for all international travelers before they board their flights to the country.
Since March, the country has shut its borders to all non-citizens and permanent residents.
($1 = 1.2807 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Renju Jose, additional reporting by Colin Packham in Canberra; Editing by Alistair Bell and Gerry Doyle)