Reports a vaccine can combat a highly infectious new strain of COVID-19 should provide “great hope to Australians”, but the government will not rush its rollout, the Health Minister says.
Astrazeneca CEO Pascal Soriot claimed the company had found a “winning formula” that made the drugmaker’s vaccine as effective as rival doses that had been given emergency approval across Europe and the US.
UK regulators are widely expected to approve the Astrazeneca vaccine this week after giving the Pfizer vaccine the green light earlier this month.
A highly transmissible new variant of COVID-19 has wreaked havoc across the UK, forcing much of the country’s south into lockdown and prompting some EU countries to bar Britons from entry.
Mr Soriot said Astrazeneca researchers believed their shot would be effective against the new strain.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Monday the revelations should be “of great hope to Australians” but would not alter the government’s timeframe.
Australians are set to receive their first vaccines in March, and Mr Hunt said the government was “in the hands of the data” and would not cut corners in approving a jab.
“We have to have the data that comes from the international clinical trials, and we’re expecting the final data in late January from both of the leading candidates,” he said on Monday.
Mr Hunt said plans were under way for Australian regulators to also test the physical vaccine stock, a process that would take a fortnight.
“It’s not something that has necessarily been done in other countries that are facing a life-threatening emergency of hundreds of thousands of lives lost per day, but it’s something which the regulator absolutely recommends for Australia,” he said.
“To say that we would release batches without having done that 14-day safety test of the actual batch is not something they’re recommending and not something we would ever want to bypass in Australia.”
The vaccine will be free but non-compulsory for all Australians, and Mr Hunt said a thorough approval process would ensure Australians were confident enough to receive the jab.
“Our goal is always underpromise (and) overdeliver, and we expect that Australians will be fully vaccinated by the end of October,” he said.
“We’ve seen some very heartening reports over the weekend of an expected uptake of up to 80 per cent.
“We would like to see as many Australians as possible be vaccinated, but in order to do that they have to have the confidence that our regulators are making sure that every safety step is ticked.”
Mr Hunt also ruled out requiring people from the UK to test negative to COVID-19 before boarding a flight to Australia.
He said the government would continue to rely on 14-day hotel quarantine stints, which he described as “the highest standard in the world”.
EU nations have begun administering the Pfizer vaccine, which has already received emergency use approval in the US.