The Morrison government says it has secured an additional 20m doses of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine – but they won’t arrive until late this year – as the Coalition faces increasing political pressure over the trouble-plagued rollout.
A day after Australian health officials recommended people aged under 50 be offered alternatives to the AstraZeneca vaccine because of the extremely rare chance of blood-clot side-effects, Scott Morrison met with premiers and chief ministers to discuss the impact on the national rollout.
Australia’s vaccination program is heavily dependent on the AstraZeneca jab, given CSL is ramping up the manufacture of it in Melbourne, and the government says it is unable to commit to ensuring everyone in Australia has access to at least the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine by Christmas.
Morrison told reporters after a national cabinet meeting on Friday that the government had “secured overnight an additional 20m doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine”, meaning Australian now expected to receive a total of 40m dozes of that vaccine this year.
Morrison said he anticipated the additional 20m Pfizer doses would not be available until the final three months of this year – but the government would “obviously be doing everything we can to seek to move that forward where we can”.
Asked whether the 20m previously contracted Pfizer vaccine doses would be brought forward, and how many would be delivered each week, the health minister, Greg Hunt, foreshadowed a gradual ramping up.
Hunt said Pfizer had indicated “that we will see an expansion in April”, up from the current figures of “approximately 130,000-plus a week”. He also expected to see “quite a significant expansion in May” and then “a near-doubling” in July.
Pfizer was yet to confirm the exact figures and had asked the government to “speak in indicative terms” for the time being, Hunt added.
Morrison rejected criticism the government had placed too many eggs in the one basket, saying Australia now had contracts for the supply of 170m vaccine doses, up from 150m contracted as of the previous day.
The increase is because of the new Pfizer deal. Australia’s other contracted doses are Novavax (51m), AstraZeneca (53.8m) and the Covax facility (25.5m).
Asked why the government had not done deals with more vaccine producers, the health department secretary, Prof Brendan Murphy, said it had gone with Pfizer over Moderna “mainly because of its capacity to deliver”.
Morrison and the health officials who joined him at the press conference in the prime minister’s courtyard at Parliament House on Friday attempted to maintain community confidence in the AstraZeneca vaccine despite the latest negative publicity.
Morrison said the “quite rare circumstances” of blood clots had not arisen in the clinical trials and “were not foreseen”, but he noted it was a risk “in the vicinity of five to six per million which is a rather rare event”.
“I stress again that there is no ban or prohibition on the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine across the adult population,” the prime minister said, adding that they were issues that individuals could discuss with their doctor.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) recommended Pfizer for under-50s in recognition of the fact the blood clot syndrome is more common in that age group, and for those over 50 the potential effects of Covid-19 are far worse.
Morrison said the AstraZeneca vaccine remained a critical component of Australia’s vaccination program, and was particularly essential in stages 1A and 1B “which ensures that we are protecting the most vulnerable in the community in a safe way”.
He said his mother would be receiving the AstraZeneca jab in coming weeks, and he described it as “a life-saving vaccine” against the risk of another wave of Covid-19 infections in Australia.
“Even when we get to the next phase, in phase 2, we are still talking about millions and millions of Australians over the age of 50 for whom the AstraZeneca vaccine is … recommended for, that AstraZeneca is a vaccine that can be very effectively used and is very effective in supporting Australia’s vaccination program,” he said.
On the issue of support to regional neighbours, Morrison said he had decided on Thursday to divert 10,000 AstraZeneca doses to Papua New Guinea “and we believe we’ll be able to make [doses] available to Timor-Leste as well”.
Australia was still seeking 1m AstraZeneca doses from Europe for use in PNG.
The chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, said PNG’s “risk from a large Covid-19 outbreak of severe infection, hospitals being overwhelmed, and death, is a real thing”, whereas the context in Australia was different.
The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, sharpened his political attack on Morrison, saying the prime minister “had just one job, to get this vaccine rollout right” but it had become “a debacle”.
Labor argues the government should have lined up deals with more vaccine companies. The party’s health spokesperson, Mark Butler, told the ABC the prime minister had “let the country down very badly, and it’s going to mean that we are going to end up locked up from the rest of the world for longer”.
The Greens called for Australia to develop a domestic capacity to manufacture mRNA vaccines, like the Pfizer one.
The government said 81,297 Australians had received Covid-19 jabs over the past 24 hours, bringing to 1.07m the total number of vaccine doses administered.
National cabinet also agreed on principles for Australia’s Covid-19 management and reopening, including allowing 100% capacity at large, ticketed, seated events.
The states and territories would “prioritise local containment measures and aim for outbreak responses that keep internal borders open”, Morrison said, while acknowledging premiers and chief ministers would maintain “sovereignty” in their health responses.
Morrison said national cabinet would take advice on steps such as allowing vaccinated Australians to travel overseas and return with a stint of home quarantine or no quarantine at all, but cautioned such an arrangement was not imminent.