The Australian manufacturer of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine says it still plans to fill a federal government order of 50 million doses, despite health authorities recommending a different vaccine be preferred for those under 50 years of age.
On Thursday night, the panel of experts that advises the federal government on immunisation issues recommended that Pfizer be the preferred COVID-19 vaccine for adults under 50 due to the risk of a rare blood clotting disorder in that age group.
The panel, ATAGI, said if the risks outweighed the benefits, AstraZeneca could still be used, and that people who had received the first dose without experiencing the rare side clotting disorder could still get a second one.
“Immunisation providers should only give a first dose of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to adults under 50 years of age where benefit clearly outweighs the risk for that individual’s circumstances,” National Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said.
The recommendation has dashed hopes that all Australians will have had their first COVID-19 vaccine by October, as the federal government may have to try and source other vaccines to cover that age group.
But on Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Australia had secured an extra 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, in addition to 20 million that had already been ordered.
Originally the AstraZeneca vaccine was going to make up the majority of Australia’s COVID-19 vaccination program.
Australia had ordered nearly 54 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, with the vast majority to be produced by biotechnology company CSL at its factory in Melbourne suburb Broadmeadows.
The remaining 3.8 million doses were to be shipped from Europe.
CSL said it remained “committed to meeting its contracted arrangements with the Australian Government and AstraZeneca for locally produced AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines”.
“We will continue our focused and important efforts to manufacture this vaccine which remains critical for the protection of our most vulnerable populations,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
“We are proud of our unique role in Australia as the only onshore manufacturer that can produce this vaccine and remain dedicated to our ongoing contribution towards this effort.”
The first batch of 830,000 locally produced AstraZeneca vaccines was released on March 24, with a goal for CSL to ramp up to producing one million per week.
The federal government earlier this week said 1.3 million locally produced doses had been received so far, with more to come in following weeks.
“We’re expecting later this week over 470,000 [doses], early next week, approximately 480,000 and then late next week or early the following week 670,000,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said.
If any doses are left over from the 50 million produced in Melbourne, it is understood it will be up to CSL’s clients — the federal government and AstraZeneca — to decide what to do with them.
About 8.75 million of Australia’s roughly 25.7 million residents are over the age of 50, according to ABS data from last September.
Infectious diseases expert Allen Cheng, who co-chairs ATAGI, said the recommendation was made based on an assessment of the benefits and risks.
“If there was a lot of COVID about, then the benefit in preventing COVID would outweigh the risk for almost all adults, except for very young adults. This is pretty much the situation in the UK at the moment,” he said on Twitter.
Professor Cheng also said the word “prefer” was used in the recommendation because people had a choice about the vaccines and treatments they get.
“If a younger person said that they were happy to take a 1 in 200,000 risk of clotting for the benefit of getting protected from COVID earlier, then as long as this was an informed decision, we should respect that choice,” he said.
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