The latest change will slow the already delayed national rollout, as about 2.1 million additional people receive the Pfizer vaccine. Pfizer will be made available for anyone aged 40 to 59 at federally run vaccination clinics.
State health authorities moved to cancel appointments for some vaccinations on Thursday, but Health Minister Greg Hunt stressed the 840,000 people aged 50 to 59 who have had a first AstraZeneca shot should keep their second appointment.
Pfizer won’t be made available to those choosing not to have a second AstraZeneca injection.
Health Department boss Brendan Murphy conceded the latest change in advice could add to vaccine hesitancy, but rollout manager Lieutenant General John Frewen said only a minor adjustment to the rollout plan was needed.
About 3.5 million Pfizer doses are due to arrive in Australia in June and July, part of an order of 40 million doses this year.
Pfizer demand outstrips supply
Mr Hunt said the company had met all of its delivery commitments and was being asked to bring forward supply of any available doses. States including Victoria reported demand outstripping supply even before the additional demand for Pfizer stocks.
“While these amendments do not change the objective of offering every eligible Australian access to a vaccine in 2021, it will mean some patience is required for 50- to 59-year-olds seeking access to Pfizer first doses over the coming weeks,” Mr Hunt said.
Unfortunately, the federal government put most of their eggs in the AstraZeneca basket, and this is now becoming a major problem.
— Adrian Esterman, UniSA biostatistics chairman
“The government places safety above all else, as it has done throughout the pandemic, and will continue to follow the medical advice in protecting Australians.”
Last week, a 52-year-old woman from NSW died after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine, Australia’s second death from blood clots linked to COVID-19 vaccines.
The first local death linked to the vaccine was a 48-year-old woman in April.
After that, the Morrison government moved to give all Australians younger than 50 the Pfizer vaccine, limiting the use of AstraZeneca because of the rare but serious clotting risk.
The risk of clotting following a second dose of AstraZeneca is much lower than following a first dose. The UK has reported 23 cases in 15.7 million people receiving a second dose – an estimated rate of 1.5 per million second doses.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said more than 3.8 million doses had been administered here, with only a tiny proportion experiencing adverse side-effects.
So far, more than 6.2 million vaccine jabs have been administered around the country, but only about 25 per cent of adults has had a first dose.
Rates of full vaccination – those who have had two doses of either Pfizer or AstraZeneca – remain below 4 per cent.
In its weekly vaccination update released on Thursday, the Therapeutic Goods Administration announced four cases of TTS clots in seven days.
Risk of an outbreak ‘significant’
Australian Medical Association president Omar Khorshid said the risk of a large-scale virus outbreak remained very significant.
“We must remember that people who are aged 60 and over are at higher risk of becoming more seriously ill if they contract COVID-19 and for these people ATAGI has decided the benefits of getting vaccinated with AstraZeneca outweigh any risks,” he said.
University of South Australia biostatistics chairman Adrian Esterman said nearly all cases of the rare clotting disorder were in women under 60.
“This will again disrupt the vaccine rollout, since Pfizer vaccine supplies are limited, and we are unlikely to get additional Pfizer vaccine, or for that matter Moderna or Novavax, until much later this year,” Professor Esterman said.
“Unfortunately, the federal government put most of their eggs in the AstraZeneca basket, and this is now becoming a major problem.”
Opposition health spokesman Mark Butler blamed the government’s failure to secure a larger range of vaccines, suggesting Australians were “dangerously exposed”.
Speaking in Europe before the announcement, Mr Morrison stopped short of agreeing the rollout was back on track, instead describing it as “accelerating”.
“We want to continue to encourage people to come forward and get those vaccinations,” he told Sky.
“But you’ve just got to roll with the challenges that come your way and get the job done.”