There are growing concerns about the economic cost to Australia that has been left behind by countries that have high death tolls but have embraced immediate vaccines and are opening up rapidly.
Much of Australia’s pandemic success can, after all, be attributed to the continued closure of the isolated continent’s border, something that is unlikely to change unless more than 6% of the current population is vaccinated is.
But with relatively few cases of the virus and so few deaths, many in Australia are questioning whether the modest health risks for young adults of the widely available AstraZeneca vaccine make it worthwhile.
It’s a debate that divided politicians and medical experts this week, when nearly half of Australia’s 26 million people living under lockdown measures as new virus clusters emerged mostly blamed the delta version. which is considered more contagious.
In Australia the AstraZeneca shot is currently only recommended for people over the age of 60 because of the risk of rare blood clots occurring in younger people. The only substitute registered in Australia is Pfizer, which unlike locally manufactured AstraZeneca is imported and in short supply.
AstraZeneca was recommended for all adults until the 48-year-old Australian died of blood clots in April. The vaccine was then recommended for people over the age of 50 until the 52-year-old died in May.
This is more than the single death from COVID-19 since last year, an 80-year-old man who died in April after being infected abroad and being diagnosed in hotel quarantine.
Many are refusing to take their second AstraZeneca jab, which is recommended three months after the first, because of evolving safety advice. Many have canceled appointments for their first shots.
In much of the world, the risk-benefit assessment is in favor of taking AstraZeneca. But in Australia that balance is different.
The Australian government on Monday gave all adults the option of AstraZene, if their doctors agree to administer the jab. The government also compensated the doctors who fired against the cases.
The leader of the Australian Army’s pandemic response, Lieutenant General John Freeven, said Pfizer had been restricted to people over 40 because of limited supplies.
“It is really important that Australians now have a choice whether they make an informed decision about accessing AstraZeneca,” Freeven said on Thursday.
“We have AstraZeneca available and I think Australians who want to be able to have a conversation with their GP about whether they use AstraZeneca now or whether they wait for another vaccine later,” Frewen told General Referring to practicing doctors said.
But fewer than 3,000 adults under the age of 40 had taken the opportunity to take their first dose of AstraZeneca as of Thursday.
Queensland state chief health officer Janet Young was accused of bullying by critics after she said on Wednesday that with only 42 active coronavirus cases in the state, AstraZeneca was not worth the risk to young adults.
“I don’t want an 18-year-old in Queensland to die of clotting disease, if they get COVID, they probably won’t die,” Young said.
They were refuted by Nick Coates, Australia’s former deputy chief medical officer, who said younger Australians were at a higher risk of dying from COVID-19 than the side effects of AstraZeneca.
Young was “unfortunately out there on a very lonely limb,” Coates said.
But the co-chair of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunization, Prof. Chris Blyth, who advised the government to recommend Pfizer for people under 60, said some young adults should take AstraZeneca.
“I don’t believe young people should receive AstraZeneca at this stage unless their circumstances press for it,” Blyth said. “There are some situations where it would be needed, but they are quite minor.”
AstraZeneca’s alternative is to wait for more Pfizer or an as-yet-unregistered Moderna vaccine to be distributed between October and December.
Recording less than 31,000 cases and a total of 910 deaths, Australia has been relatively successful in containing clusters during the pandemic.
Australia imposed extraordinarily strict border restrictions in March 2020 that prevent Australian citizens and permanent residents from leaving the country, as well as foreigners from coming in except under limited circumstances.
The government estimates that normal flights will not resume until the middle of 2022, which scares business groups.
Those involved in international education, Australia’s third-largest export industry, have warned that it would mean foreign students turning to universities in other countries next year and staying with those institutions throughout their curriculum for years.