Health

Victorious over Covid, Australia and New Zealand grapple with vaccine rollout


They were held up as Covid success stories, two countries at the bottom of the world that kept outbreaks under control and deaths low as the pandemic swept the rest of the globe.

Daily life in cities including Sydney and Auckland now feels largely back to pre-pandemic normal – restaurants are full, theatres are open, masks are scarce and offices are busy. A degree of international travel is also a reality thanks to the new “trans-Tasman travel bubble” – a two-way quarantine-free corridor between the neighbours.

But despite the victories won over Covid in the past year, Australia and New Zealand are struggling with another beast: vaccine rollouts.

Australia’s glacial pace of delivery – blamed on a series of mistakes by the government and overseas supply delays – has prompted estimates that the country won’t return to normal levels of international travel until 2024. New Zealand – which started to vaccinate in February – has to date administered a first dose to just 4.5% of eligible people.

By comparison, the US and England, whose pandemic responses have been roundly condemned, have administered a first vaccine dose to half and 60% of their populations respectively. In the US, that amounts to 131.2 million people. In the UK, to 32 million. Vaccinations are more urgent for both those nations – Australia and New Zealand have smaller populations and health systems that aren’t under pressure from treating cases.

Australia’s strategy abandoned

In Australia, the government initially adopted a wait-and-see approach to immunisation. With cases low, the plan was to make sure vaccines being used in the UK and US were safe and effective. While the country had invested in multiple vaccines including Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Novavax and University of Queensland vaccines, only the first two are available to date. The University of Queensland vaccine plans were scrapped after its jab was found to result in false positive HIV tests in some patients, and the Novavax clinical trial data is still being gathered and analysed. This means Australia has been forced to rely on just two vaccines, and one of those, Pfizer, is in particularly short supply

But in mid-April, in the wake of news that the AstraZeneca vaccine was linked to blood clots in rare cases, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, abandoned the country’s vaccine strategy and admitted that most Australians might not be vaccinated by the end of the year.

A nurse holds up a syringe containing the Pfizer vaccine in Brisbane
A nurse holds up a syringe containing the Pfizer vaccine in Brisbane. Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

He made something of a U-turn on Monday, announcing a plan to fast-track vaccinations for over-50s, mainly using the AstraZeneca vaccine. The government has secured additional doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine but these will not arrive until late in 2021.

The relative success in managing the pandemic has been put down to leadership by state premiers – but responsibility for securing vaccines belonged to the federal government.

The New South Wales health minister demanded an apology from Morrison’s government after the prime minister tried to blame states for the slow rollout, despite receiving doses falling far short of the numbers promised. The Queensland premier said the federal government deserved an “uppercut” for its attempts to shift blame.

And Australian doctors have labelled the national vaccine rollout a “farce” after confusing messaging led to practices being inundated with calls from patients.

If the rollout continued at the same pace as the current seven-day rolling average of under 36,000 doses, it could take almost 40 months to administer the 45m doses – just for Australians over 18 – that the government had hoped to give. Doubling the current rate would still see the rollout run until next year.

Experts interviewed by Guardian Australia said a delay in vaccinations could devastate the tourism industry as the country “misses out on first demand” from consumers in countries that are opening up. For now, the government is hoping that some of the country’s tourism woes – and cabin fever – can be solved with the travel bubble with New Zealand.

A worker prepares to load a truck with the first batch of the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine produced in Australia
A worker prepares to load a truck with the first batch of the AstraZeneca vaccine produced in Australia. Photograph: Luis Ascui/Getty Images

New Zealand waits for deliveries

The story in New Zealand is different but the result is similar. The country is unlikely to be fully vaccinated until Christmas. Even then, it is uncertain what the rules surrounding travel will be.

The government has secured enough of the Pfizer vaccine for its entire population, avoiding the uncertainties and delays surrounding the AstraZeneca vaccine. And though the rollout, which began in February, has been criticised by the opposition for its slow pace, it is expected that at least 1.1m doses will be administered by the end of June – more than a third of the willing adult population the country ultimately plans to immunise.

Though now behind Australia in terms of per capita vaccinations, New Zealand officials say the country’s vaccination strategy is – unlike Australia’s – still on track to be completed by the year’s end.

The director general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, noted last week that while it had taken New Zealand six weeks to administer its first 100,000 vaccines, it had taken just one more week for that number to reach 150,000. New Zealand’s progress was in line with other countries with a comparable Covid-elimination response, like Taiwan, he said. Taiwan has blamed its own difficulties securing the vaccine on suspected political pressure from Beijing – something New Zealand has not had to worry about.

New Zealand’s director general of health Ashley Bloomfield with prime minister Jacinda Ardern
New Zealand’s director general of health Ashley Bloomfield with prime minister Jacinda Ardern. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

The case of an unvaccinated security guard testing positive for Covid-19 highlighted some of the New Zealand’s challenges with testing and vaccinating its entire border workforce. While almost all army and police workers are now vaccinated, border staff also include private contractors, such as security staff, who are more transient.

A University of Auckland vaccinologist, Helen Petousis-Harris, co-leader of the Global Vaccine Data Network, said New Zealand could have started preparations for the infrastructure needed to roll out the vaccine earlier. The national immunisation register, which records vaccinations, or second doses needed, was out of date, she said: “It had to be put in place and that, I would argue, should have happened a lot earlier and should have been much further along.”

Because New Zealand’s health system wasn’t overwhelmed with managing a high case load, this should have been achievable, she added.

One of the challenges the government will face in coming months is ensuring that there are enough people trained to administer the vaccines – as well as support staff.

“Every flu season we vaccinate about 1.7 million people in a few weeks,” Petousis-Harris said, which showed that it was possible. As part of Covid vaccinations, the country plans to vaccinate just under twice that number – an estimated 3 million adults – by the end of the year.

But for now, with flu season arriving, those workers could not be taken away from that work. At the same time, as the country waits for deliveries of secured doses, she said it was important not to have infrastructure in place that wasn’t being used – or that used all of a delivery up overnight and was then left with nothing to do for months.

For now, Aussies and Kiwis are safe and their economies are bouncing back. But the question is how long people will be happy to stay inside their countries – and what the costs could be.

In New Zealand, at least, much of the population seems to be embracing isolation. Polling last year found that 75% to 85% of New Zealanders wanted the border to stay closed until Covid-19 was under control internationally. And concerns about the country’s economy were also muted – a poll by the Spinoff in February found just 7% of New Zealanders felt the economy was in worse shape than elsewhere, and 57% thought it was better.

Additional reporting by Elle Hunt



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