The Pfizer vaccine is now crucial to Australia. Why the secrecy about how much we have?

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Mark Evans/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mark Evans/Getty Images

Transparency and accountability are two of the most crucial tools a government has in managing a public health crisis, as numerous research papers and post-disaster investigations have shown.

Last week the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said it is “a good idea for us to have more data transparency” on issues around the Covid-19 vaccine rollout – including the number of doses currently available in Australia.

On Monday night, months into the rollout, the government did finally release some data and graphs. They showed as of 11 April 1,178,302 vaccines had been administered and there were 726,992 doses available.

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But the data didn’t include a breakdown of the number of Pfizer versus AstraZeneca vaccines – a key detail in light of the recent announcement advising that Pfizer should be preferenced for people under 50.

So, why won’t the government tell Australians exactly how many doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been rolled out to date, where they have been distributed, and how many doses are in-hand?

The government has invested millions of dollars into Covid-19 vaccine tracking systems to monitor every crucial dose. These tracking systems are so sophisticated they can track and report the temperature of the vaccine, as well as the receipt of the vaccine by health services, transparently and in real-time.

Related: Six key things we don't know about Australia’s Covid vaccine rollout despite promises of ‘transparency’

But it’s hard to understand the point of this tracking and monitoring when even basic information isn’t being conveyed to the public.

Guardian Australia has asked the federal Department of Health for data on how many Pfizer doses have been administered and how many more are in supply. The same questions have been asked about the AstraZeneca vaccine. State and territory health departments, including a NSW Health spokeswoman, confirmed to Guardian Australia the federal government should have this data.

Yet the questions have gone unanswered.

At a press conference in Canberra on Monday, the chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, was asked a simple question: “How many doses of Pfizer [has Australia] received so far?”.

He replied: “What I can say about Pfizer is that we have had a regular supply since the middle of February.” He did not have specific numbers at hand, saying he would have to take the question on notice.

However, it is not the first time the government has been asked the question in recent weeks.

Guardian Australia also asked how much, if any, vaccine wastage there had been, and what proportion of waste was the AstraZeneca vaccine versus Pfizer vaccine. This includes expired, missing, and unaccounted-for doses.

The commonwealth requires states to report on any wastage, defined as “five or more vials in a single instance”. A federal Department of Health spokeswoman would only say the government was “collating” this data, but did not say when or if it would be publicly available.

“The Australian government has undertaken detailed implementation planning with jurisdictions and providers to ensure access to doses and to minimise wastage,” the spokeswoman said. “The Vaccine Operations Centre has strong procedures in place to closely monitor wastage and receives daily reports on wastage from vaccination providers.”

So many procedures, so much monitoring, and yet so little transparency to show for it.

One of the reasons Australia did not rush to begin its vaccine rollout in December, when other countries such as the US began, was because Australia was – and still is – in an enviable position, with low Covid circulating in the community.

It meant the Australian government and advisory committees had time to scrutinise vaccine safety and efficacy data, and to get logistics systems up and running so we could account for vaccine doses. In the US and UK, thousands of precious vaccine doses have been lost and wasted in the urgency to vaccinate and prevent more deaths – a situation the Australian government has the time and resources to avoid.

Related: Coalition’s ‘stupid’ October target creates more problems for Australia’s vaccine rollout, thinktank says

Yet the government still seems unable to answer basic logistical questions.

Is there enough Pfizer in the country right now for all frontline health workers and high-risk people? ABC Radio National breakfast program host Fran Kelly asked the chief medical officer this on Monday. “How many doses are there in the country?” she asked.

The response was unconvincing.

“We’re getting Pfizer doses in relatively small numbers every week and as we’re getting them we are rolling them out,” Kelly replied, adding, “I’m not going to talk about numbers today.”

So when will the government talk Pfizer numbers? And when will Australians get answers?

As of Monday the government could not say how many Australians might be vaccinated by the end of the year, or even how many Pfizer vaccine doses it has in the country. Perhaps the Australian public would be more forgiving of this had the adamant and ambitious vaccine targets not been so wildly off from the start.

The government can’t be blamed for international supply chain issues and unexpected rare side-effects, but the lack of transparency is inexcusable.

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