We need to look out for our neighbours to ensure vaccine supplies

During the height of Sydney’s COVID-19 Delta outbreak, NSW reached out for help from other states to boost its vaccination supplies. It received a cold response, with each state tightly guarding their own limited stocks.

When Australia turned to the global community, it secured 500,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine from Singapore in September as part of a swap deal which will see Australia return the same amount in December. Another one million surplus vaccines produced at Pfizer’s Belgium facility were also purchased from Poland on a not-for-profit basis.

At the time, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Singapore deal would accelerate our vaccination program at a critical time. As of Friday, 87.9 per cent of Australians aged 16 and over have had one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, and 76.2 per cent are fully vaccinated. Health Minister Greg Hunt says we can expect to pass the 80 per cent double-dose rate within 10 days, a critical milestone.

As Australia now prepares to provide third booster jabs, its neighbour Papua New Guinea has only vaccinated an estimated 1.5 per cent of its 10 million people with a first dose, according to figures published earlier this month from the Burnet Institute’s Brendan Crabb. UNICEF estimates that less than 5 per cent of the African population is fully vaccinated.

The World Health Organisation reports that 63 per cent of the populations of wealthy nations have received at least one jab compared to just 4.5 per cent of people in poor countries. It says that of the 5.7 billion doses of coronavirus vaccines administered around the world, only 2 per cent have been in Africa.

United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has described the inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines as “an obscenity”.

Addressing a gathering of world leaders in New York last month, he said images of expired and unused vaccines in the garbage was a moral indictment on the world. We had passed the science test, but failed on ethics.

UNICEF Australia has also warned of the waste of unused vaccines and stressed the need to share more with poorer countries. Of the 1.3 billion additional doses countries have pledged to donate, only a fraction, 356 million doses, have so far been provided to the World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) program. UNICEF is urging world leaders to address the issue at the G20 meeting this weekend.

The federal government has ordered more than 225 million doses of the Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Novavax vaccines for the country over this year and next year. The Commonwealth has committed 40 million of those for foreign aid and a further 20 million through a partnership with UNICEF. But Australia has donated just 5.8 million doses to neighbouring countries including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, Indonesia and Vietnam to date.

We could do better, particularly when we have about 7 million doses of Moderna, AstraZeneca and Pfizer sitting unused in fridges and freezers around the country. Apart from any altruistic intentions, it is also in our self-interest to help boost vaccination efforts in those poorer nations.

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