Australia had the opportunity to do something truly remarkable in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, we’re stuffing it up.
It was a frightening moment when a mysterious new virus seeped out of China and spread around the world at the beginning of last year.
As it spread to millions of people in dozens of countries, it became clear that this was no joke.
Hospital systems, even in some of the most developed nations, struggled to keep pace with the sick while morgues in poorer nations struggled to find space for the dead.
While the world is still struggling with the lingering effects of the pandemic, we have come a long way since we first heard about the novel coronavirus.
Human beings as a species often get a bad rap, and sometimes with good reason, as we’ve been known to do some stupid stuff to our planet and our fellow earthly inhabitants over the course of history.
But, the past nineteen months or so have shown us we are capable of truly remarkable things as well.
When Covid-19 first spread far and wide, it was commonly accepted that we may never have a vaccine for the disease it causes and that, if we were lucky enough to get one, it would very likely take years before it could be widely distributed.
If you’d have told us that, just over a year later, GPs around Australia would be throwing out hundreds of doses of safe and effective vaccines because people didn’t want them — we wouldn’t have believed it for a second.
Imagine telling that to one of the grieving families who lost a loved one in Melbourne’s horrific second wave last year.
But it gets even worse than that.
On Wednesday, it was revealed that it was the “beginning of the end” for the AstraZeneca vaccine in Australia.
The jab, that costs over ten times less than Pfizer, can be easily transported without using Star Wars-esque freezers, is being already mass produced here in Australia and is showing signs of giving longer protection against Covid-19 than the mRNA vaccines, is being collectively thrown in the bin.
The production of the jab on Australian shores will be suspended by Christmas — finally succumbing to months of hesitancy after being linked to an extremely rare blood clotting side effect.
According to the TGA, the estimated risk of dying from the side effect is approximately one in a million people who receive a first dose.
From almost 12.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab given to Australians, eight people have died from the clotting effect known as TTS linked to the jab and one person has died from an extremely rare side effect called immune thrombocytopenia (ITP).
The deaths are obviously extremely tragic for those families, but it is also important to put this in context.
From roughly 130,000 Covid cases in Australia, there have been 1448 deaths linked to the virus — with NSW recording more than nine deaths a day for several weeks in this latest outbreak and Victoria beginning to follow the trend.
Based on those figures, you have a 1.113 per cent chance of dying from Covid if you catch it, compared to a 0.000072 per cent chance of dying after receiving an AstraZeneca jab.
The average number of road deaths in Australia each year is 1427 — so you’re taking more of a gamble, that is hundreds of more times more dangerous, by crossing the road or driving to work each day than getting AstraZeneca.
There are also risks associated with getting the mRNA vaccines. The TGA says, in its latest report, it has received 629 reports of suspected pericarditis — the swelling and irritation of the thin membrane surrounding the heart — after people receiving the Pfizer vaccine.
Again, the risk is tiny. However, the messaging around the AstraZeneca vaccine has been far more disappointing.
Hysterical media coverage of the deaths linked to the jab had been spurred on by statements from politicians that have been, at best, unhelpful.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s breathless late-night press conferences about changes in ATAGI advice instilled a sense of worry in Australians around the vaccine, while comments from Queensland chief health officer Jeannette Young were so anxiety-inducing that they were recently used in an anti-vax campaign.
Posters put up around Melbourne in September featured an image of Dr Young and a quote from one of her press conferences earlier this year, when she said: “I don’t want an 18-year-old in Queensland dying from a clotting illness who, if they got Covid, probably wouldn’t die.”
Add to this inordinate amount of time we’re all spending reading garbage on social media because many of us have been locked in our homes, and it’s perhaps no surprise that AstraZeneca is going the way of the dodo.
Demand for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has now reportedly rendered the vaccine irrelevant.
“Obviously we don’t want to manufacture something that’s not going to be utilised, and we will have a number of options moving into the future,” University of Queensland Associate Professor Paul Griffin told Channel 9.
“It obviously has received a lot of negative press and it’s a vaccine that has proven highly effective and very safe.”
Once the current order is complete, it’s expected the vaccine’s Melbourne manufacturer, CSL, will cease production, and the Federal Government will “almost certainly” not extend the contract beyond this year.
It’s a sad end to what could have been an Aussie success story.
It means the lion’s share of our vaccine supply is now in the hands of American multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnology corporations — which are making billions from the jabs and weren’t exactly forthcoming with supply when we needed it most.
AstraZeneca meanwhile pledged not to profit from the vaccine during the pandemic and is selling it for a far lower price than its competitors — and we had the opportunity to have as much of it as we wanted.
It’s also sad and shortsighted that we’re not continuing to produce AstraZeneca in order to support our regional neighbours and developing nations around the world that desperately need vaccines.
This is a global problem, and the continued spread of Covid-19 overseas means new variants are likely to occur, and possibly come back to haunt us.
To stop producing vaccines in Australia when nations like Indonesia — our close neighbour, friend, strategic partner and the world’s third largest democracy — are crying out for them is unforgivable.
Indonesia has only fully vaccinated a little under 20 per cent of its population, with around 35 per cent having received at least one dose. That leaves nearly two-thirds of its population without having had any vaccine.
Instead, doses of AstraZeneca are being thrown in the bin because Australians don’t want them.
Sydney GP Dr Bernard Shiu anticipates he will have to bin further 500 doses next month.
“I remember when they finally arrived in my clinic into my hands, I felt like I was holding gold, thinking ‘wow, let’s go and save lives’,” he told newsGP yesterday.
“Now we are chucking them in the bin – it’s absolutely heartbreaking.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.