SMH: Opinion/ Worried about the vaccine? Don’t be – we will be well protected

As we start the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines this month, questions raised over whether the two that are the pillars of the initial program, from AstraZeneca and Pfizer, are the right ones – compared with the vaccines in use in other countries – are contributing to a lack of confidence in the program.

It shouldn’t, and here’s why.

Some people have worried that the AstraZeneca vaccine has an efficacy of about 70 per cent, compared with the Pfizer vaccine, which has shown efficacy of about 94 per cent.

What is lost within these comparisons is that both vaccines are highly protective, virtually 100 per cent against severe disease, hospitalisation and death. So, even if you should get a breakthrough infection after vaccination, it will most likely be, at worst, a milder infection that can be managed at home.Advertisement

We know this because tens of millions of people globally have now been immunised with both vaccines and they are both safe and are reducing the severity of the disease. Fewer people are getting really sick and overwhelming hospitals, which is hugely important in places with struggling health systems such as the US and the UK.

In Australia, where we don’t have ICUs overrun with COVID cases, the advantage of having a vaccine that reduces the severity of disease is more about its potential to reduce people’s capacity to infect others.

This reduction in infectivity is yet to be proven because globally it’s such early days in the vaccination process, but it’s very likely one of the benefits of the AstraZeneca jab, as it is for the other COVID vaccines.

We already know from our annual influenza seasons that the vaccinations don’t necessarily stop you from getting the flu, but they do stop you from getting really sick and infecting others. So, as we roll our sleeves up when offered the COVID vaccine, we can hope for, and expect, a similar effect.

If – as some are arguing – Australia should hold out for the more efficacious vaccines, then we miss the chance to get ahead of the virus.

The AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines are robust, they are shown to largely work, they are available in sufficient quantities for the entire population and they are what we have right now. And we have the capacity to make our own AstraZeneca vaccines here in Australia, making us self-reliant in a time of great uncertainty, which is important.

Starting very soon we can protect our frontline health workers, workers in quarantine hotels, the elderly, workers in aged care etc.

This provides us with another layer of defence protecting us from the next outbreak. Vaccinating the population will help temper the need for a full shutdown.

This is a great position to be in, but we also have to recognise that COVID vaccinations and treatments are a changing landscape, and that this fluidity will continue for some time to come.

So rather than expending energy over criticising the government for choosing to go largely with the AstraZeneca vaccine, we should recognise that this is just one step in what will be a very long journey – with new variants, hiccups in immunity, the rise of groups (pregnant women, people over 65) who may not safely take a particular vaccine and the overriding issue of vaccine nationalism and other as yet unknown issues along the way.

In many ways the world has taken for granted the speed at which these vaccines were developed. It was a herculean task never undertaken before and an example of what modern medicine can achieve when the global community of scientists, clinicians, bio-tech and pharma groups can work together.

These same researchers, doctors and industries will continue to monitor, re-evaluate and rejig vaccines and treatments as new variants arise, and as new data comes in regarding efficacy.

But for now, the best vaccines are the vaccines that we actually have and the earlier they are used, the sooner the pandemic will be controlled, even if this infection never completely disappears.

It has been said numerous times that Australia has managed the COVID crisis better than most, with mandated mask wearing and lockdowns being, belatedly, adopted by other countries.

And having a vaccine, any vaccine, won’t mean these public health interventions will be able to stop. But this is our future now – it is uncertain, but we should be confident that we have the tools and plans in place to get on top of this virus, to get back to something that resembles normal, and feel lucky that we do.

Professor Ross Coppel, deputy dean and director of research, Monash University Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences.

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