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Ken McCroary has been racing to vaccinate as many people as possible during the worst Covid-19 outbreak in Sydney since the start of the pandemic. But he has been battling a problem that has blighted Australia’s inoculation programme: hesitancy to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after reports it caused blood clots in a rare number of cases.
“People call our practice and say they want Pfizer not the ‘blood clot vaccine’,” said McCroary, who works as a doctor in Campbelltown, a suburb with among the lowest vaccinations rates in the country. “People are terrified of getting blood clots even though the risks are extremely rare.”
Australia has 12m doses of AstraZeneca but almost half are unused while stocks of BioNTech/Pfizer’s mRNA jab are in short supply.
That has resulted in an inoculation programme that has proceeded at a glacial pace — just over 15 per cent of Australians are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in the developed world. This is one reason why the country has not escaped from the clutches of coronavirus.
Australia was initially lauded for suppressing Covid-19 after the government imposed tough lockdowns and closed borders last year. Residents largely adhered to the restrictions, deaths were limited to less than 1,000 and the economy was allowed to reopen.
But an outbreak fuelled by the fast-spreading Delta variant has led authorities to reimpose lockdowns over the past month and economists have warned the country faces the prospect of a double-dip recession.
This time round, residents have also shown signs of being fed up with the restrictions: nationwide anti-lockdown protests last month attracted thousands of demonstrators. Authorities deployed 300 soldiers in Sydney this week to boost compliance with a six-week lockdown, as active case numbers surpassed 3,250. The government has said it cannot ease lockdowns until at least 70 per cent of adults are vaccinated.
“I’m fed up with lockdowns and closed borders, especially when it’s so difficult to get a vaccination,” said Gabrielle, a woman in her thirties who declined to provide her full name.
She said she tried to book an AstraZeneca jab this week but decided against it after contacting a number of clinics. “One clinic told me AstraZeneca is not recommended for women under 40 and suggested I try and get Pfizer,” she said.
The Australian government promised to be at the “front of the queue” for Covid-19 vaccines. Instead, Scott Morrison, prime minister, has had to apologise for failing to meet targets, although he has rejected claims the government bungled the procurement of jabs.
Canberra has been hampered by the failure of a homegrown vaccine project by the University of Queensland and CSL, an Australian pharmaceutical company.
The government was also slow to sign a deal with Pfizer and initially only bought 10m doses of its vaccine. It has been further hit by delays to deliveries of the 40m doses it ordered from Novavax, a US biotech company.
“The Federal government were very late in ordering the vaccines. The thinking at the time was that as we had very little Covid-19 in Australia, there was no hurry,” said Professor Adrian Esterman, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at the University of South Australia.
The government’s messaging on vaccines, particularly in relation to the AstraZeneca jab, has been awful, he added.
Critics have attacked Morrison for saying the vaccination roll out was “not a race” before the most recent outbreak.
Atagi, Australia’s chief advisory body on vaccines, has changed its advice on the jab several times. It recommended Pfizer as the “preferred” vaccine for under-sixties last month due to the rare blood clot condition. But it updated its advice last week due to the Sydney outbreak, saying all adults over 18 years should be vaccinated with any jab, including AstraZeneca.
Sarah Gilbert, a professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford who helped design the AstraZeneca vaccine, blames mixed messaging for the hesitancy. “We could see a lot of lives lost because of it,” she told Australia’s state broadcaster.
“Most of us can’t afford the luxury of sitting back and saying I don’t want to have the vaccine that has actually been taken by almost every country in the world and kept other countries safe,” said Brad Hazzard, health minister of New South Wales state, last week.
There are signs the latest effort may be starting to work, at least in Sydney. A University of Melbourne survey last week suggested public hesitancy had fallen to 21.5 per cent of the adult population, down from about one-third in May.
But McCroary said convincing people to take the AstraZeneca vaccine was still a challenge.
“All the mixed messages have planted negative ideas in people’s heads and I’m concerned it’s all now a bit too little, too late.”
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