Older Australians at back of queue for mRNA vaccines despite Atagi advice to give them choice

Older Australians could have to wait months to get a choice of vaccines, despite the technical advisory group on immunisation (Atagi) calling on the government to consider making mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer available to them.

With supplies of mRNA vaccines set to increase from 1m Pfizer doses per week from July to at least 3m per week of Pfizer and Moderna from October, there will soon be enough doses to offer choice to older Australians, who currently can only take the AstraZeneca vaccine.

On Sunday the Australian Capital Territory chief minister, Andrew Barr, agreed vaccine choice “would be considered once vaccine supplies are there” although he suggested that was likely to be “at the very tail end of the vaccination program”.

The Liberal MP Jason Falinski has thrown his support behind choice of vaccine – but warned older Australians should not get priority over those aged 12 to 15 who are only approved to take Pfizer.

Last week, Australia’s vaccination program was opened to those aged 16 to 39 from 30 August and 12 to 15 from 13 September.

On Friday Atagi recommended that people aged 12 to 15 should be approved for Pfizer, but added that they are “of a lower priority than older adults (as the direct benefits of vaccination in preventing severe Covid-19 are greatest in this group)”.

“Atagi therefore recommends that all strategies are considered including provision of choice of vaccine to ensure older adults are vaccinated,” it said.

Since April, Australia’s vaccination program has been split with those aged 50 and under then later 59 and under recommended to take Pfizer, and those aged over 59 only able to access AstraZeneca.

Despite AstraZeneca being safe and effective, and the blood clot risk being relatively lower for older age groups, polls found some older Australians were not prepared to take it and opted to wait for Pfizer.

In May the health minister, Greg Hunt, sparked confusion by noting that “as supply increases later on in the year, there will be enough mRNA vaccines for every Australian”, later clarifying that he believed “everybody over 50 [should] be vaccinated as early as possible” with AstraZeneca.

Asked whether the government will follow Atagi’s advice about offering choice, Hunt told reporters on Friday that the government had “said from the outset that we have whole-of-population access to vaccines”.

“We’ve already seen extraordinary levels of vaccination amongst our older Australians … it’s 77% [first doses] for the 50 plus, 82% for the 60 plus, and 86.6% [for those aged 70 and over.

“The over-60s are increasing by about 0.4% a day. The over 70s are increasing by about 0.3% a day.

“So what we’re seeing is strong continuous demand and we’ll provide more advice on that later.

“But we’ve always said it would be whole-of-population access during the course of the year. So we followed Atagi advice to the letter.”

A spokeswoman for Hunt said the government would be “deeply concerned at any implication older Australians should delay or wait for their vaccinations”.

“If you are eligible now please do not wait. Put simply if you delay or wait for your vaccine you could be killed by Covid.”

Omar Khorshid, president of the Australian Medical Association, said “until we have free access to as much mRNA vaccine as we need, it’s unlikely eligibility will open up”.

“The minister did indicate many months ago [mRNA vaccines] will be there for everyone – but there is already a safe and effective vaccine for those over 60: Vaxzevria [AstraZeneca].”

At this stage Moderna will only be available to people aged 60 and under. On Sunday Hunt suggested Moderna would be approved for the 12 to 17 age group within two weeks, and Barr confirmed the commonwealth had advised states and territories it would be made available through pharmacies from late September.

The regional health minister, David Gillespie, told Guardian Australia he was “keen to make sure that regional Australia reaches the 70% and 80% targets at the same time as metro Australia does”.

Gillespie backed the Doherty Institute modelling, which called for the targets to be achieved across “small areas” – not just the national or state level – to ensure equity in the vaccine rollout.

“As far as choice goes – the best choice of vaccine is the one you’ve had,” he said.

Falinski blamed Atagi’s April advice as “one of the main reasons why the vaccine rollout took as long to get going as it did” and praised AstraZeneca, as “emerging evidence suggests it is a better vaccine against the Delta variant”.

“Yes, people should have a choice of vaccines but priority should be given to 12 to 15 year olds,” he said.

“I don’t think it needs to be a choice between those aged 12 to 15 and older Australians,” he said, citing increased supply.

National MP Pat Conaghan, whose electorate of Cowper is one of the oldest demographically in Australia, told Guardian Australia there is “an abundance of AstraZeneca, but unfortunately due to misinformation peddled early on there is that hesitancy from a number of older people”.

“They’re a bit concerned about it – they wanted to wait to see A, what happened with statistics on AstraZeneca, or B to see what the options were when Pfizer or Moderna came along.”

Conaghan said he expected “in the next three to four weeks the floodgates will open with regards to vaccination in the regions” as increased supplies of Pfizer will flow to areas that had rescheduled appointments to divert supply to south-west Sydney.

“There was some disappointment and frustration there. I want an abundance of vaccine in the regions so we can get back to normal.”

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