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Australian children aged from five to 11 will have to wait until January to get their COVID-19 jabs, according to the head of Australia’s vaccine rollout, with the smaller doses of the Pfizer vaccine secured in a purchase agreement but not yet in the country.
In an interview with The Sun-Herald and The Sunday Age, Lieutenant-General John Frewen said the rollout could begin at the start of January, which is the clearest signal yet from the federal government about the long-awaited start date.
COVID-19 Taskforce Commander, Lieutenant General John Frewen.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
However, it’s expected the program will not ramp up until late January – subject to a green light from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisations and the Therapeutic Goods Administration – as people return from summer holidays and the new school year begins.
Australia has secured more than 5 million doses for the rollout to younger kids. About 4.6 million of these will be for the 2.3 million children aged five to 11, who are likely to have two jabs, and about 800,000 doses for children aged zero to four, who are likely to get one dose.
Infants may be eligible for vaccination soon after, as trials are now under way for vaccines for children aged between six months and five years, with results due early next year, and sufficient doses secured for that cohort.
The Pfizer vaccine for children aged five to 11 is slightly different to the vaccine for anyone over the age of 12, in that it has 10 micrograms in each shot, rather than the 30 micrograms in the adult dose. In the United States, the vaccine comes in smaller, orange-capped multi-dose vials.
The US Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency-use authorisation on October 29 for the vaccine designed for 28 million American children aged five to 11.
In an exclusive interview, General Frewen, who is Australia’s COVID-19 Taskforce Commander, said the federal government had been “working to be at the front of the queue” to purchase the vaccines which, he noted, were only available in the US at present.
“We have already secured Pfizer five to 11[-year-olds’] vials as part of our booster contract as a contingency if other vials were required. We have actually purchased sufficient supply for doses and boosters down to infants,” he said.
“Whilst it is a matter for the TGA and ATAGI [to approve the jabs], once US data is available and approvals are given, this could be for commencement at the start of January but this will depend on the independent assessment processes.”
“So when’s the earliest time this happens? You know, if it’s happening by the end of January, then I think things are going at a good speed.”
In October, TGA boss Professor John Skerritt and ATAGI co-chair Professor Allen Cheng both expressed hope the rollout could start this year.
However, Professor Cheng indicated last week that target had slipped because ATAGI wanted safety data from at least several hundred thousand young children in the US before signing off, while hinting supplies had not yet arrived.
“We have to get supply … because it is a special formulation,” he also said, noting the need for a separate, lower-dosage vaccine for children aged under 12.
Co-chair of the Australian and New Zealand Paediatric Infectious Diseases Group, Professor Asha Bowen, said vaccine trials for children aged between six months and five years were under way, with results likely to be available by early 2022.
The Pfizer vaccine for children aged 5-11 in production in Puurs, Belgium.
“We will probably have results to contemplate for the under-five-year-olds early next year, and if the vaccine is approved for that age group then integrating it into the childhood vaccination program will be critical,” Professor Bowen said.
While a rollout of jabs to kids through schools was possible, General Frewen said he expected GPs, pharmacists and mass-vaccination hubs to form the backbone of the process, as it had done for the rest of the population.
He also reassured parents who wanted their children to be vaccinated as soon as possible that “the best way to keep kids safe, according to the health advice, is to have vaccinated people around them”.
General Frewen also said he was now prepared to take a few more risks with the vaccine rollout – and allow for a little more wastage – so that as many people as possible got the jab.
Minister for Health and Aged Care Greg Hunt and COVID-19 Taskforce Commander, Lieutenant General John Frewen.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
In the early days of the vaccine rollout, wastage had hovered about 1.2 per cent because “every vial was precious” but that had risen to a little over 2 per cent.
“There was a risk tolerance level that said, you know, don’t open a vial until you’ve got enough people to use the whole vial … now, if you’re in a remote area or you’re in a place where you know people aren’t turning up regularly, if there’s a concern about should we or shouldn’t we open the vial, well right now, we should open the vial and get those people vaccinated whenever we can because it’s about getting as many people vaccinated as possible.”
As Australia passed the 90 per cent single-dose benchmark on Friday, General Frewen expressed confidence the same percentage could be reached for fully vaccinated and suggested that 95 per cent was possible, which would be an “extraordinary achievement”.
He also confirmed he expected to serve in his current role until May next year, by which time the majority of Australia’s booster shots would be delivered, and which would mean he had served 12 months in the job.
After months of criticism of the rollout to Indigenous Australians and people with disabilities lagging the general population, despite both being high priority groups, the delivery of vaccines has finally picked up pace.
“We’re closing on 70 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people having had their first dose and we’re just shy of 57 per cent now of fully vaccinated,” General Frewen said. Those figures still lag the general population, but represent an improvement.
But double-dose vaccination rates of Indigenous people are as low as about 27 per cent in remote Western Australia. In Cairns and central Queensland, about 32 per cent of the Indigenous population has had two doses.
People in the NDIS “pleasingly yesterday ticked over 80.7 per cent first dose and 72.5 per cent fully vaccinated”, General Frewen said.
That represents a big jump from just 26.79 per cent of NDIS participants being fully vaccinated in late August – a shockingly low figure given people with a disability are among the people most vulnerable to die from COVID-19.
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