Mass Covid vaccination clinics pointless in Australia without greater supply, doctors say

Christopher Knaus
·5-min read
Photograph: James Ross/EPA
Photograph: James Ross/EPA

Experts and doctors have warned that new mass vaccination clinics will do little to aid Australia’s flawed vaccine rollout without greater supply certainty, and may even undermine the efforts of general practitioners.

The federal government has signalled it wants to work with states and territories to set up mass vaccination clinics as part of a broader effort to overhaul the rollout strategy.

The idea has long been proposed as part of Australia’s vaccination rollout program, and is already in use in a limited fashion in Victoria, as well as in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Experts are broadly supportive of the use of mass vaccination clinics in Australia.

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Professor Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases physician at the Australian National University, said, however, that mass vaccination clinics would do nothing to aid the current problem facing the rollout, which related to supply constraints, not distribution.

In fact, he said, if mass vaccination clinics were to be set up without resolving the supply problem, it would require diversion of vaccine supply from general practitioners, who are already struggling with undersupply issues.

“We do want to get people vaccinated but at the moment there’s a supply issue, so I can’t see the advantage of having it,” he told the Guardian. “I’d only think we need to do that if we’re producing one million doses a week of vaccine from Melbourne, and within a couple of weeks after that production number we’re not immunising at least 700,000 or 800,000 people a week, because that’s not then a supply problem, it’s a distribution problem.”

The Australian Medical Association has taken a similar view. The AMA president, Dr Omar Khorshid, said the only way to supply mass vaccination clinics “will be to take the vaccines off general practice, which is quite capably administering those vaccines as we speak”.

“The only handbrake on our GP rollout of AstraZeneca is the supply,” he told the ABC. “The current 4,500 odd practices that are participating have a lot more capacity to do more vaccination. We’ve heard that loud and clear from them. And also there are another almost 4,000 practices available that could participate should they be permitted to do so by the government.”

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The issue of mass vaccination clinics is expected to be discussed at national cabinet, which will now be meeting twice-weekly. The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said on Thursday that mass vaccination clinics had always been contemplated by the state.

“We’ve always had that on the agenda, if needed,” Palaszczuk said on Thursday.

“So that’s something that we’ll be discussing at national cabinet. As I said yesterday, we don’t have any papers yet so I cant really comment on what’s on the agenda if you don’t have any papers.” 

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, said in a speech that mass vaccination clinics were being envisioned for the fourth quarter of the year, or sooner, depending on supply.

“And if we get that right, it should be possible – it should, assuming supply chains and vaccine hesitancy not getting beyond us – it should be possible to vaccinate the balance of the population this year,” he said.

The vast majority of Australia’s 40m order of Pfizer vaccine is expected to arrive between October and December. Domestic production of the AstraZeneca vaccine is also expected to increase significantly by that stage.

The deputy chief medical officer, Michael Kidd, also indicated some support for the use of mass vaccination clinics in the later stages of the rollout. On Tuesday he said venues such as stadiums could be used.

“There are discussions with each of the states and territories as to how we best meet the needs of their specific populations,” he said.

Queensland health minister, Yvette D’ath, said it would be pointless to set up mass vaccination centres until the extra Pfizer supply was received. 

“Until we have lots of vaccine, there’s no point setting up mass vaccination centres. So when we get that extra 20m Pfizer, that would be the time when we go out with mass vaccination centre,” she said. “But it’s really for the Commonwealth to tell us how they want to run those,” she said.

The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has previously said her government is considering setting up a mass vaccination clinic at the Sydney Showground. But she also flagged the potential for clinics to take vaccine supplies away from other areas.

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“It goes both ways. Having one centre detracts from people being able to access [it] from their local communities and really ignores the rural and regional communities that need to have the vaccine as well,” she said.

Victoria is currently using a number of vaccination clinics, including one at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre, though they are only being used for some high-priority healthcare workers.

Collignon said the role of GPs would become even more important, given the anxiety now created over the highly effective and overwhelmingly safe AstraZeneca vaccine. More people would be wanting to have one-on-one conversations with their doctor to weigh up the risks and benefits.

Professor Catherine Bennett, Deakin University chair of epidemiology, said the benefit of mass vaccination clinics would primarily be for younger Australians receiving the Pfizer vaccine. She said once supply catches up to the required level, mass vaccination clinics can be used to remove several steps in the highly complicated distribution model.

It would also allow greater efficiency in obtaining the vaccine and would prevent wastage of the Pfizer vaccine, which requires very cold storage and thawing prior to administration.

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