Australia will need to double the speed of its COVID-19 vaccine rollout in order to safely open its international border within 12 months, epidemiologists have warned.
- Australia has vaccinated about 1.86 million people so far
- The rollout has been pushed back due to concerns over the AstraZeneca vaccine
- One expert says it will take years to vaccinate the population under rates
People entering Australia from abroad have had to complete two weeks’ hotel quarantine since March 2020, in a move that has seen the Lucky Country avoid the worst of the pandemic.
This week, quarantine-free travel between Australia and New Zealand began and Qantas boss Alan Joyce has previously stated he’s hoping more travel bubbles will be introduced this year.
However, two leading epidemiologists have told the ABC that’s unlikely to happen, and warned the majority of Australians will need to be vaccinated before international borders can be safely reopened.
Australia has vaccinated about 1.86 million people so far.
“The current rollout will take years at the pace we’re injecting,” epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws, from the University of NSW, said.
About 70,000 people received a COVID-19 vaccination in Australia on Friday, but Professor McLaws said that would need to reach 140,000 a day for the international border to open safely within 12 months.
This week, state and territory leaders struck an agreement with the federal government to fast-track the AstraZeneca vaccine to people aged over 50 from next month.
Previously, only frontline workers and people aged 70 or older had been eligible for a shot, but the move is expected to speed up Australia’s inoculation program.
But Professor McLaws said people aged 20 to 49 — who account for half of all COVID-19 cases in Australia — would also need to be vaccinated before Australia opened its borders to the rest of the world.
Australia is planning to give people aged under 50 the Pfizer jab, which, at this stage, must be produced overseas.
Professor McLaws said 85 per cent of Australians aged 20 to 49 should be vaccinated before the international border could be opened safely due to that age group’s “risk of long COVID and a risk of transmitting it to others”.
“They will protect the elderly [once vaccinated],” she said.
The federal government has ordered 40 million Pfizer vaccine doses — enough to inoculate 20 million people.
The government says it has so far received 1 million Pfizer vaccine doses and is expected to receive a total of 20 million doses over the course of 2021.
Professor Raina MacIntyre, an expert in global biosecurity and infectious disease from the University of NSW, estimated 70 to 80 per cent of the population should be vaccinated before international borders opened.
But she said “at this rate, we’re not going to have anywhere near” that, and called for the rollout to make better use of general practitioners.
“The first thing we need to focus on is to be finishing the vaccination program,” Professor MacIntyre said.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the decision to lift international travel bans would not be rushed.
Mr Joyce said earlier this week 630 Qantas employees had been able to return to work because of the Australia-New Zealand travel bubble opening.
He is keen to see international travel resume in October — which was the federal government’s original timeline to have most Australians vaccinated.
“If we want to finish in six months, we’re going to have to do 100,000 injections of both [vaccines] per day from now until October,” Professor McLaws said.
“But we’re not going to do that, it’s just not going to happen.”