In light of the upcoming rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, The Daily Advertiser talked with Finley general practitioner Alam Yoosuff, based in NSW's Riverina, and put questions to the Department of Health to address common concerns.
Dr Yoosuff is the director of primary health for the Murrumbidgee Local Health District but spoke in his capacity as a GP.
He said that as conversations around the vaccine ramp up, he has fielded many patients' questions.
"A lot of people are asking about the vaccine and wanting to know when it is going to be available, how, and when will we get a date," Dr Yoosuff said.
"There are people who tend to rely on their GPs, and there is continued trust with a communication pathway that is open to them to request information."
Should I be worried the vaccine has been developed so quickly?
One of the most common concerns Dr Yoosuff hears is that the vaccine has been made too quickly. He explained multiple factors as to why it has been developed so rapidly, the first of which is funding. Dr Yoosuff said companies that develop vaccines would often be slowed down by ensuring the risk of losing money is not too high.
"What we did with COVID, the governments around the world - developed countries in particular - pumped so much money into vaccine production companies that we took the risk away," he said.
"The companies could focus on the development of the vaccine rather than the financial fears."
Another factor, Dr Yoosuff explained, is that the concept of a pandemic was not new - governments and health authorities had been putting plans in place.
"A lot of these processes were already in place such as certain trials, and there were some pathways and agencies created," he said.
"So in some respects, all we had to do was start it up in a high-speed version."
A third reason for the rapid development of the vaccine, Dr Yousuff said, was the procedural change.
"But, what we did - because we had so much money- while we were doing phase one, we also started the initial parts of stage two," he said. "That way, it was more streamlined, and there were no lags between stages."
The Department of Health's spokesperson echoed this adding that newer technologies build vaccines using the genetic code for the virus. Hence, researchers worldwide could start their work as soon as the genome for the virus was released in January 2020.
"To date, only limited numbers of COVID-19 vaccines have been approved through emergency use authorisation provisions in countries experiencing very high daily cases and mortality," they said.
"In Australia, the Therapeutics Goods Administration rigorously assesses vaccines for safety, quality and effectiveness, before they can be legally supplied.
"Any decisions regarding the availability and rollout of a potential COVID-19 vaccine and related policies will be based on expert advice and will be contingent on meeting all requirements with regard to testing and safety."
Is there a problem with the effectiveness of AstraZeneca?
The government will administer the Pfizer vaccine to "priority groups" like quarantine and border workers, front line health workers, aged care and disability staff and residents.
AstraZeneca is likely to be prioritised for everyone else.
Media outlets have reported that since doctors are concerned about the AstraZeneca's efficacy rate, ranging from 62 per cent to 90 per cent, depending on how doses are administered. But, Dr Yoosuff said, there is one crucial fact to keep in mind.
"In terms of preventing death and serious illness it works 100 per cent of the time," he explained.
"Another point to keep in mind is that when we talk about the vaccine, it's not just the effectiveness of it that we consider. We need to calculate lots of other issues such as where you can produce, how quickly and whether or not it can be regulated in Australia."
Dr Yoosuff said there are advantages to making and distributing the AstraZeneca vaccine here in Australia.
"It is a very safe vaccine, and it is a very good vaccine," he said. "What it means is that it will work about 70 per cent of the time to prevent symptomatic COVID-19 disease."
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The Department of Health spokesperson said all of the vaccines procured by the government work to protect against COVID-19 symptoms and severe disease.
"Detailed clinical trial data has demonstrated that the Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Novavax vaccine candidates all generated effective immune responses in participants, through antibody production, sufficient to prevent symptomatic COVID-19," they said.
How is the government planning to help educate the public on the vaccine prior to the rollout?
The Department of Health spokesperson said the government has committed $23.9 million in MYEFO for a national public education campaign to be rolled out to inform Australians of the COVID-19 vaccination program prior to its launch.
"This campaign will include a national advertising campaign across a number of channels," they said.
"It will also include communication specifically for priority groups, culturally and linguistically diverse groups and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
"Communication will help ensure confidence in the rigour of Australia's approval process and encourage uptake of the vaccine when the time comes."
The spokesperson added that the health care sector will be vital in providing advice and factual information to their patients around an approved COVID-19 vaccine.
"The department is engaging with peak bodies in the sector as well as state and territory health departments to prepare health care professionals for the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines," they said.
To support a national campaign, the Department of Health has a number of a helpful resources available on www.health.gov.au/covid19-vaccines with detailed information on Australia's vaccine candidates, national rollout strategy, the Therapeutic Goods Administration's (TGA) assessment and approval process, Australia's priority population groups and more.