Australia has abandoned its target of vaccinating nearly all the country’s 26 million people against COVID-19 by the end of 2021 after medical authorities changed their advice on vaccine use for the under-50s.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia would not set any new target for administering all first doses.
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“The Government has also not set, nor has any plans to set any new targets for completing first doses,” Morrison wrote on his Facebook page on Sunday. “While we would like to see these doses completed before the end of the year, it is not possible to set such targets given the many uncertainties involved.
Australia’s vaccination programme was built about the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but regulators adopted a more cautionary approach after a tiny number of cases of rare blood clots were found mainly among younger people who received the jab.
Medical authorities last week recommended those under the age of 50 have the Pfizer BioNTech shot instead.
The glacial pace of the rollout and slipping targets – the entire population was originally supposed to have been vaccinated by the end of October – have fuelled anger even as coronavirus cases in the country have been all but stamped out.
Morrison said 1.16 million people had received their doses as of Sunday, well short of the four million who were supposed to have had their jabs by the end of March.
The AstraZeneca vaccine, which is cheap and easy to transport, was supposed to be the backbone of Australia’s seven billion Australian dollars ($5.32bn) vaccine programme with nearly four million doses ordered from overseas and a further 50 million to be produced at a facility in Melbourne.
The government had also ordered 20 million doses of the Pfizer jab – although only about one million have been delivered – and moved to double that last week after the medical advice was changed.
Critics, including the opposition Labor Party, have said the government should have secured more deals with vaccine developers to diversify its vaccine portfolio. It has also signed up for the Novavax jab, which is still to secure approval, and is part of the World Health Organisation’s COVAX facility.
Morrison moved to reassure Australians saying 1,000 more GPs would be recruited to the rollout this week and noting 142,000 doses had been given to elderly people in more than 1,000 care homes, with more than 46,000 of those being second doses at more than 500 facilities.
“We will just get on with the job of working together to produce, distribute and administer the vaccines as safely and efficiently as possible,” he said, noting the speed of Australia’s vaccination programme was in line with other countries, including Germany and France, and ahead of Canada and Japan.
Australia’s tough response to the virus – closing borders, imposing hotel quarantines and an effective testing and tracing system – has largely stamped out COVID-19 allowing people to continue their lives much as normal.
But the border closures have also left tens of thousands of Australians unable to return home and mean those already in the country cannot leave.
It has reported just less than 29,400 cases of the coronavirus since the pandemic began, with 909 deaths.