SYDNEY — If you believe Australia's leaders, the local coronavirus vaccination drive is ramping up fast and the country is leading the world out of the pandemic.
"Australia is leading the world out of the covid-19 pandemic and recession." Scott Morrison praises the jobs figures and takes a swipe at New Zealand for not being able to produce vaccines. #auspol #nzpol pic.twitter.com/40lcJx7FMq— David Marler (@Qldaah) April 6, 2021
But the vaccination program has fallen far short of the benchmark of 4 million doses by the end of March the government was promising earlier in the year. About 900,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines had been administered as of Wednesday. Fewer than 5 percent of adults have had their first shot.,
Australia became a pandemic success story by quashing the coronavirus last year. Cases in the nation of 26 million are rare, besides returned travelers in hotel quarantine. Life has mostly returned to normal, with mask-free excursions, packed stadiums and dancing in pubs. So in that respect, the immediate need is less pressing than harder-hit nations.
But vaccine supply issues are thwarting Australia’s plan to fully bounce back and reopen borders that have been closed for more than a year.
Australia signed a contract with British-Swedish firm AstraZeneca, which developed a coronavirus vaccine with Oxford University, in September for 3.8 million doses to be delivered in January and February. Since then, the European Commission introduced export restrictions, and Italy has said it blocked the shipment of 250,000 doses destined for Australia. AstraZeneca advised the Australian government that not all of the contracted doses could be delivered.
“It’s straightforward math — 3.1 million out of 3.8 million doses did not come to Australia. That obviously had a very significant impact on the early rollout of the vaccination program,” Morrison told reporters Wednesday.
AstraZeneca is “working closely with the government to ensure supply of the 3.1 million doses from offshore production that are included in our agreement,” the company said in a statement.
Complicating matters is AstraZeneca’s blood clot worries. France, Germany, Sweden and Canada are among those restricting the shot’s use in younger people, while Denmark and Norway have maintained a complete pause.
Health authorities in Australia have said it is likely the vaccine is linked to the hospitalization of a 44-year-old Melbourne man with blood clots, almost two weeks after he received his Oxford-AstraZeneca injection.
On Wednesday, the European Union’s medical regulator said that the rare blood clots are a potential side effect of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, but that its benefits outweigh any risks. The European Medicines Agency left decisions on administering the AstraZeneca vaccine to E.U. nations.
But so far, Australia is sticking with the drug, with regulators saying the benefits outweigh the risks.
Australia began manufacturing the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in Melbourne in November, but officials say it is taking time to get the locally produced doses tested and quality-approved. The eventual plan is to produce a million doses a week.
A top health official sought to put a positive spin on the vaccine program.
“It’s ramping up rapidly,” Brendan Murphy, the federal health department secretary, told reporters. Doctors “are putting vaccines in arms,” he said. However, he conceded the supply problem has left some doctors with few doses.
Anna Davidson, a director at a clinic in Port Stephens, New South Wales, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. last month that her practice had spent about $8,000 on new vaccine fridges so it could vaccinate up to 1,000 people a day — but had received just 50 doses a week.
Australia isn’t the only place to go from a world-leading response to playing catch-up.
Taiwan in December said it had agreed to buy almost 20 million vaccine doses, including 10 million from AstraZeneca. The first batch — about 117,000 doses from AstraZeneca — only arrived last month. The government aims eventually to get up to 45 million vaccine doses for its 23 million people.
In China, where the coronavirus has been largely contained since the middle of last year and where vaccine makers initially focused on exporting doses, the domestic rollout has been slow, with only about 4 percent of the population vaccinated, according to health officials.
Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, on Wednesday announced plans for a mass vaccination center in Sydney. State leader Gladys Berejiklian said the fate of the center rests on the federal government being able to get enough doses.
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