Australia has ordered millions more COVID vaccines than it needs. What are the options for tackling them?

Health officials and experts are assessing what to do with the tens of millions of COVID-19 vaccines Australia has bought but doesn’t need, with concerns that some are simply being lost.

Of the approximately 255 million doses of vaccine purchased by the federal government, less than a quarter — about 60 million — have been administered nationwide.

Another approximately 40 million doses have been donated in the Indo-Pacific region.

Some vaccine stocks, especially Novavax, have barely been touched.

Even with the increased uptake of fourth doses, Australia will be left with a huge number of purchased but not needed vaccines, especially as variant specific vaccines are procured and rolled out.

Health Minister Mark Butler has ordered a review of Australia’s vaccine agreements, led by former Health Department Secretary Jane Halton, who will look at what to do with surplus vaccine stocks.

“If it turns out we have a surplus, then I would like to have a range of options for us as to what to do with any surplus vaccines we were contractually required to take,” he told a news conference announcing the review.

The federal government bought a series of vaccine options to provide coverage if one or more didn’t work, and built into that plan was the probability that if most worked, there would be enough doses left over.

Some experts argue that while the early months of the pandemic were undoubtedly full of uncertainty, it is clear that Australia and other rich countries have ordered far too many vaccines.

They claim that over-ordering vaccines has starved poorer countries of early access to doses, and those countries are still very slowly catching up.

And with a plethora of vaccines around the world, they may have nowhere to go now.

Lots of Novavax and not many available arms

One of the largest vaccine deals in Australia was with Novavax, securing 51 million doses of the protein-based vaccine.

But figures from the Australian Immunization Registry show that the supply has barely been touched.

Vaccine brand

Purchased doses

Doses Used (to the nearest thousand)

Usage percentage (percent)

AstraZeneca

53,800,000

13,807,000

25.66

Pfizer

126,000,000

41,699,000

33.1

Modern

25,000,000

4,612,000

18.45

Novavax

51,000,000

162,000

0.32

Remark: Australia has donated more than 40 million doses to the Indo-Pacific, either from its own stock or obtained through UNICEF.

By the end of June, only 161,000 of the 51 million doses had been administered.

That’s 0.3 percent.

This is largely because by the time Novavax was approved for use and available to be rolled out, more than 95 percent of Australians aged 16 and over had been fully vaccinated.

And while the injection is now approved for use as a booster, it’s not recommended, as the national panel of immunization experts prefers that mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna be rolled out instead.

It means the government could be on the hunt for a home for more than 50 million Novavax doses.

Has Australia Bought Too Many Vaccines?

Australia wasn’t alone in looking for a range of different vaccine deals in 2020 and ordering more than enough to cover the population a few times over.

It was always made clear that there had to be contingencies in case certain vaccines didn’t work.

But Deborah Gleeson, of La Trobe University, argued that even after factoring in the uncertainty of 2020, it was clear the government was ordering too much.

“Australia has really participated in a larger trend that we’ve seen globally of wealthy countries buying up far more doses of COVID-19 vaccines than they needed early in the pandemic,” she said.

Others are more generous about the government’s approach.

The chairman of the Australian Global Health Alliance, Brendan Crabb, said the government needed a range of vaccines in the early months of the pandemic.

“I am easy on the government in this regard,” he said.

“In the emergency of a pandemic, it makes sense that we gave ourselves many options.

“But we have to look at that very carefully and decide how we can do better next time, because there is nothing more tragic than literally throwing away life-saving vials of vaccine.”

Prof. Brendan Crabb's MCU in a gray suit with white shirt and blue tie.
Brendan Crabb says rich countries should pool their resources to better distribute vaccines to countries where they are needed.(ABC news)

Many tens of millions of ordered vaccines have yet to be delivered, and there are suggestions that the government could look to review contracts with a view to getting newer boosters, rather than standard vaccine doses.

The cost of the vaccine rush

Both agree that rich countries have broadly abandoned poorer countries at the start of the pandemic, and the consequences are clearly visible.

According to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford, only 16 percent of people in low-income countries are fully vaccinated.

Professor Crabb said that while rich countries talked about vaccinating the world, and made some significant efforts, the results speak for themselves.

“That is a failure on behalf of all rich countries,” he said.

“It’s not that Australia hasn’t done much. We have done a lot.

While international vaccination efforts were hampered early by vaccine shortages, the situation has quickly changed.

All over the world, countries with more vaccines than they need are trying to give them away.

The United States has pledged to donate 1.1 billion doses of vaccine by the end of the year, and it’s already more than halfway there.

Most are administered through the COVAX initiative, a global collaborative program to equitably acquire and distribute vaccines worldwide.

Those involved in global vaccination efforts say issues such as strained health systems in developing countries and hesitation about vaccines are bigger problems than supply.

dr. Gleeson said when vaccines were sent overseas they had to be far from their expiration dates, they had to be a mix of brands, and they should come with support to administer them.

“We really need to think about the distribution of vaccines around the world in a much more systematic way, rather than just exporting excess doses to countries that will have a hard time using them in the short term,” she said.

A woman in a bright pink scarf and a black shirt.
Deborah Gleeson says rich countries are likely to hoard vaccine doses again.(Provided: Deborah Gleeson)

Fear Nations Will Repeat Mistakes With New Vaccines

The Australian government is already in talks with companies like Pfizer and Moderna about purchasing variant-modified boosters to roll out in the future.

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