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Australia backs Pfizer virus vaccine over AstraZeneca for under-50s

The move, after Europe’s drug regulator found a possible link between the Anglo-Swedish vaccine and rare blood clotting issues, is a huge hurdle for Australia's faltering inoculation effort, which relies heavily on the AstraZeneca vaccine.

April 08, 2021 / 05:00 PM IST
Representative picture

Representative picture

Australia recommends the use of Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine for people younger than 50 in preference to the shot made by AstraZeneca, the government said on Thursday, changing its advice for those deemed most at risk.

The move, after Europe’s drug regulator found a possible link between the Anglo-Swedish vaccine and rare blood clotting issues, is a huge hurdle for Australia's faltering inoculation effort, which relies heavily on the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said Australia would advise health providers to only give a first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine to adults younger than 50 when the benefit clearly outweighs the risks.

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Those who have already had a first Astrazeneca dose without any serious adverse events "can safely be given their second dose," he added.

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

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There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

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Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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On Wednesday the European Medicines Agency said it found rare cases of blood clots among some adult vaccine recipients, but added that the advantages still outweighed the risks.

Kelly said despite the risks being extremely low, Australian experts have changed their advice for those at greatest risk.

Australia has ordered 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine and Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Canberra was in talks to increase the order.

It will continue to give the AstraZeneca vaccine to people aged over 70, but those above 50 who opt for the Pfizer vaccine will have to wait, the government said.

The European regulator's latest findings spurred Britain to recommend an alternative vaccine for people younger than 30, while Italy suggested limiting AstraZeneca shots to those older than 60.

Australia's immunisation campaign, which is more than 80% behind its original schedule, relies heavily on the AstraZeneca vaccine for a population of nearly 26 million.

It had pledged to administer at least 4 million first doses by the end of March, but could only deliver 670,000, with the government blaming the delay on issues over supply from Europe.

It had been looking to ramp up the immunisation effort, underpinned by plans to make 50 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine in Australia, produced by CSL Ltd.

Australia began vaccinations much later than some other nations because of its few infections, which stand at just under 29,400, with 909 deaths, since the pandemic began.

Neighbouring New Zealand has barred entry to all travellers from India, including its own citizens, over the next two weeks after numerous arrivals from the South Asian nation tested positive.

It is the first time New Zealand has barred its own citizens and residents, although both it and Australia shut their borders to non-citizens very early in the pandemic to rein in outbreaks.

Follow our full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic here.
Reuters
first published: Apr 8, 2021 04:45 pm

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