I was really surprised (and still am) to learn that we have our first Coronavirus vaccines that will be rolling out in Australia today and over the coming weeks. Admittedly, I knew very little about vaccines before Christmas.
I’ve been checking into the excellent Coronacast podcast throughout 2020, and it’s become a daily listen on my way to work or on my walks. Hosts Norman Swan and Tegan Taylor have such excellent views on epidemiology that I’d be more than happy for them to be making our decisions around outbreaks. Did I mention that they are only around a 10 minute listen?
In recent weeks, Coronacast has provided some considerable insight into vaccines. To mark today’s commencement of the vaccine rollout in Australia, I thought I’d paraphrase some of what I’ve learned here (to the best of my ability).
I’ve learned that the vaccines have been proven to protect against COVID-19 disease if infected. It would likely mean that fewer people would become severely unwell or end up in hospitals.
What we don’t yet know is whether vaccines can prevent transmission of COVID-19. Could a person that’s been vaccinated still spread the disease to another person? Time will tell. If the latter were the case, then we would need 100% of the population to be vaccinated (which is unlikely) for our vaccine strategy to be successful.
Australia has two vaccine frontrunners, Pfizer and AstraZeneca. A small supply of imported Pfizer vaccines are being rolled out this week to front line workers such as those working at our quarantine hotels, borders and healthcare professionals in those kinds of settings. Also in ages care settings. 3.8 million imported doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were also approved by the TGA last week, with locally manufactured doses of this vaccine pending approval. This is the vaccine that most Aussies will be receiving, should they choose to be inoculated.
Then there’s the issue around the efficacy rates among these vaccines. Efficacy is the percentage reduction in disease among the group of trial participants who received a vaccine compared to those who did not. I believe the Pfizer vaccine had an efficacy rate north of 90%, while AstraZeneca’s was only around 62%.
Per Coronacast, Astra’s trial was a little messy – with some participants receiving an unplanned half dose and then a full dose of the vaccine – leading to a higher efficacy rate among a sub group of around 2,000 trial participants. The TGA has recommended two full doses of the Astra vaccine 12 weeks apart and, per Coronacast, this should see an efficacy rate nearly as good as Pfizer.
We’re also being told to expect that these vaccines may become seasonal in the same nature as the flu shot. It might be that we need a booster shot, the vaccine needs adapting as the virus mutates, or a combination of both.
Assuming that diabetes meets the criteria of a ‘medical condition,’ Aussies with diabetes are likely to be offered a vaccine in Group 2, with approximately 5 million people ahead of me in the queue – as per this handy tool from the ABC. But again, I’m not particularly interested in drawing lines between diabetes and COVID19. I’ll be happy to wait my turn, because there are definitely people who need it more than I do.
The prospect of a vaccine still gives me a little anxiety. I don’t think it’s going to be a replacement for good hygiene or physical distancing for quite some time. I do worry that the complacency that’s clearly set in will only be accelerated. While the virus continues to ravage on overseas, we cannot afford to get complacent. Nor is this a reason to open our international borders anytime soon.
Despite our privilege here in Australia, I think it’s fair to say that 2021 hasn’t been much different to where we ended 2020. Just like diabetes, the nature of this pandemic has changed thanks to more transmissible variants – just when we thought we had it under control. We’ve had some scary escapes from our strict hotel quarantine measures in Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and most recently Melbourne – all of which resulted in various forms of short localised lockdowns and restrictions.
So, I’m definitely feeling hopeful that these vaccines might give us a little more stability here in Australia has we continue our unique way of life inside this amazing bubble.