By ALEC SMART
In an apparent step towards mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has suggested venues and businesses should consider banning people from entering their premises without proof that they’ve been vaccinated.
Ms Berejiklian told Nine Radio yesterday, on the one-year anniversary of Australia’s first Covid-19 case, “I don’t ever like to force anybody to do anything, but we’d like there to be an incentive system where people are encouraged to have [the vaccine] because it means they can do all these things, which they may otherwise not have been able to do.”
The first doses of Covid-19 vaccines for the Australian public are expected to be available in mid-February and Ms Berejiklian said state and federal Liberal-National coalition governments were planning discussions in the interim on implementing methods to ‘incentivise’ people into accepting the vaccine injection.
These may include introducing measures that permit businesses, restaurants and licensed venues to deny entry to employees and patrons who can’t prove they’ve been inoculated.
“Already airlines have indicated that if you’re not vaccinated, you can’t travel overseas,” she said.
“We will also consider whether we allow venues to as well … Whilst it’s the federal government’s responsibility in terms of the vaccine and the rollout, all workplaces and state governments will have a say in encouraging people to take it.”
Medical vaccine ID cards?
News of the NSW Government considering whether to make attendance at social gatherings, or entry to the workplace, conditional on being inoculated has divided public opinion – not least because of the legal obligations and ramifications of carrying around medical identity cards confirming vaccination. Will non-cooperation result in fines and court appearances? How will it be enforced? Is it a back door to an Australian identity card?
On the ABC Facebook page, for example, respondents debated whether coercion was detrimental to public cooperation and expressed safety concerns about vaccines where members of the public are arguably guinea pigs in several international trials that haven’t run long enough to examine long-term risks and side-effects.
There is also concern over the Federal Government’s choice of vaccine, with several in circulation, including two formulas developed, respectively, by pharmaceutical giants Pfizer (the American multi-national) and AstraZeneca (the British-Swedish multinational).
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), a division of the Australian Department of Health and the regulatory body for therapeutic goods in Australia, is focusing on these two, among other possibilities, but Australia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly has indicated that most Australians will receive the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is reputedly ‘less effective’ than others. More on that below.
The safety concerns come in the wake of reports of up to 30 deaths in Norway in people inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine, from a total of around 45,000 people injected with the vaccine, most of them elderly residents of nursing homes.
On Monday, former chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy, Secretary of the Department of Health, told ABC News Breakfast he was “not unduly concerned” about the Norwegian deaths.
“This group of people who had these adverse effects, and unfortunately some died, were very, very old and frail,” he said. “It’s not clear whether the vaccine – how directly related to the death it was.”
The Medical Director of the Norwegian Medicines Agency, Steinar Madsen, also said he was “not very concerned”.
“All these patients are nursing home patients. If there is a very short expected life span, if they are terminally ill, you should consider not vaccinating them.”
Professor Catherine Bennett, Chair in Epidemiology at Deakin University, Victoria, also played down the risks of vaccination.
“I think people should be very reassured, we have a very good regulatory process here, a very thorough process in Australia and because we’ve been able to wait for all safety data to come in from the phase 3 trials and now have the benefit of learning from the experience in those countries rolling out the vaccine.”
Ms Berejiklian sought to quell anxieties about the risks of the Pfizer vaccine and on Nine Radio said, “Please know that nothing would get approved unless it was safe.
“I want people to start thinking about the vaccine, how they would feel about it if they were offered it and I would encourage everyone to take up that offer. The more people that are vaccinated, the greater likelihood that we can have a return to normality as we know it.”
Ms Berejiklian again urged more people to visit coronavirus testing stations to confirm they’re not carriers.
“Given where we are in the pandemic we really need to get those testing numbers up so that we can feel confident in moving forward and easing some of those restrictions,” she said.
As Australia approaches its two millionth coronavirus test, NSW recorded six new locally-acquired transmissions of the virus over the weekend when a small cluster of six cases in Western Sydney around Berala was identified – persons all known to each other.
However, NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant also revealed that traces of Covid-19 have been detected in sewage at the Glenfield Wastewater Treatment Plant in Macquarie Fields, which processes household sewage from the region, including Berala, 25 kilometres away.
So which vaccine is more effective?
There are several in production. The USA is concentrating on two formulas, one developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, the other by American pharmaceutical Moderna.
The Pfizer-BioNTech formula, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommended for individuals aged 16 years and over, was found to reduce the risk of developing symptomatic Covid-19 infection by about 95 per cent in phase 3 (final stage) clinical trials – although it was not tested on pregnant women.
The Moderna formula has suffered a setback, despite recording 94 per cent efficiency in phase 3 clinical trials. On 18 January, California state epidemiologist Dr. Erica S. Pan warned health providers to delay using the Moderna vaccine, stating that a “higher than usual number of possible allergic reactions” were reported at a San Diego vaccination clinic. Around 10 people required immediate medical attention when they experienced seizures after receiving the injection.
The batch being administered, lot 041L20A, is undergoing safety analysis to determine if there were other factors contributing to the anaphylactic reactions.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is reportedly only 65 per cent effective, which some scientists say is not high enough to achieve ‘herd immunity’ to keep Covid-19 at bay. Herd immunity is the term applied to enhancing a community’s natural resistance to a virus to the point where its transmission is stifled and the contagion effectively stopped.
However, despite this, the AstraZeneca vaccine is likely to be given to the the majority of Australian citizens, especially in rural and regional Australia.
This is because, unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, it doesn’t have to be stored in special, ultra-low temperature freezers, which would hinder delivery to remote areas.
John Hall, President of the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, revealed, “The AstraZeneca vaccine is the one that doesn’t require minus 70 degrees storage. That’s the one that can be delivered anywhere in Australia, can be managed through any general practice and pharmacy, and will likely be the vaccine that most rural and regional Australians get.”
The significantly more effective, but possibly riskier to older recipients, Pfizer vaccine is to be limited to just five million of Australia’s 25 million population.
None of the vaccines are claimed to protect from Covid infection; instead they offer increased protection from the disease the virus causes.
However, because the disease is mutating as it spreads, current vaccines may offer limited protections against more aggressive mutations on the rise.
Although there’s no evidence yet that the new strains are deadlier than the common SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes Covid-19), they are significantly – up to 80 per cent – more contagious.
Two of three identified mutations, the UK (B.1.1.7) and the South African (501Y.V2) variants, have already been detected in returned Australians currently isolated in hotel quarantine, while the Brazilian (P1) has not yet reached these shores.