Potential long-term harms of rare AstraZeneca side effect drove vaccine advice
The potential long-term harms of the rare clotting disorder linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine was a driving factor for recommending that COVID-19 immunisation only be given to those aged over 60 last week.
States and territories have also been given an outline of how many vaccines to expect over the rest of the year after an emergency national cabinet meeting was held on Monday to discuss the state of the rollout.
Associate Professor Christopher Blyth, who co-chairs the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, told a parliamentary COVID Committee hearing that the rate of death for people who experience the clotting disorder is low – just 3 per cent – and the risk of dying of clotting after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine is one in 2 million.
Two women have died from the clotting disorder thrombosis with thrombocytopenia in Australia. But an important factor for the group’s decision was the long-term harm that will be experienced by some of the 58 other people who experienced the condition.
“More needs to be considered than deaths, and importantly, more than deaths were considered in our advice of last week,” Dr Blyth said.
“A number of Australians have been harmed as a result of blood clots, and they are particularly occurring in young individuals … a number of those individuals will have long term complications as a result of these events.”
As of last Thursday, 36 people diagnosed with thrombosis with thrombocytopenia had been discharged from hospital, but four remained in intensive care.
To date, more than 6.59 million vaccine doses have been administered across the country, including about 4 million doses of AstraZeneca. Lieutenant-General John Frewen, head of Operation Covid Shield, told the committee the country had 2.3 million doses of Pfizer on hand, and a further 3.4 million across the rest of June and July.
Earlier on Monday, the Lieutenant-General briefed the meeting of federal, state and territory leaders on planning for the vaccine rollout to the end of the year.
“What I did do at national cabinet today was to issue planning parameters of the likely lowest allocations and the likely highest allocations that the states and territories can expect right out to the end of the year now. Previously, they haven’t had that information available,” he said at a press conference on Monday afternoon.
He also confirmed the Commonwealth was supplying first doses of the Pfizer vaccine to states and territories, and then delivering the matched number of second doses three weeks after along with more first dose deliveries.
Pfizer deliveries have dipped to just under 300,000 a week for June, but Lieutenant-General Frewen said his plan was to get as many vaccines as possible to states and territories.
“As we get into that third quarter, fourth quarter, we think we will have far freer flows of Pfizer and we will start to be able to allocate that more freely, but for now we have to manage the resources that we’ve got against the higher priorities,” he said.
Vaccine Operations Centre head Commodore Eric Young said the 2.8 million doses of Pfizer set to arrive on Australian shores in July – about double the number of doses expected in June – would mean an increase to the number of doses states receive.
“An increase overall in July, and we’ll have about 2.8 million doses of Pfizer coming in July, that will enable a baseline increase allocation to each of the states and territories,” he said.
Dr Blyth said the risk of dying from COVID-19 was much higher for people aged over 70 than the risk of dying from a side effect.
“We believe in older individuals it is clearly in favour of receiving an AstraZeneca vaccine,” he said.
Rachel Clun is a federal political reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, covering health.