Could Canada’s Vaccine Rollout Success Show Australia the Way out of Lockdowns

After a slow start, vaccination rates have accelerated strongly in Australia, with 6,240,640 Aussies now fully vaccinated and just over half the population (52.8 percent) having at least one jab in their arm.

But although Australians would like to hear that their uptake of the vaccine was world-leading, it is actually Canada’s and Spain’s vaccination efforts that are currently leading the world, not Australia’swith Canada managing to get nearly 73 percent of its population over the age of 12 vaccinated in 52 days.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau thinks this performance will impress Canadian voters that it is worth risking an early general election to try recapture the parliamentary majority his Liberal Party lost in 2019.

Australian politicians—who face a federal election before May next year—have more than a passing interest in the outcome of Trudeau’s gamble.

But it is Canada’s vaccination performance and what we can learn from it is of much more immediate interest.

It is the country we identify with most in culture, area, population and distribution, and system of government. Canada’s success gives Australia hope that we can reach a critical mass of vaccination fairly soon and learn to live with COVID-19.

Locked down Australians eager to get their freedom back from governments applying extreme COVID restrictions are being told that mass vaccination is a necessary condition for freedom—even if it proves insufficient on its own.

Although the pace of vaccination has surged in recent weeks, it did so from a low base, and we are still a long way from vaccinating the 70 to 80 percent threshold of the eligible population. Compared with Canada’s two-thirds vaccination of the population, Australia is at just under one-quarter.

This is why the daily vaccination numbers are now watched as closely as the daily COVID numbers. For example, on Aug. 21, we reached a full vaccination rate of 30 percent of those aged 16 and above, compared with the thresholds of 70 to 80 percent.

The modelling work by the Doherty Institute of Infection and Immunity that guided the national cabinet’s choice of these thresholds suggests that Australia could reach the lauded figures sometime between Nov. 1 and 22 this year.

The take-up rate of the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine has increased. As a result, more of the Pfizer product has become available. The vaccination rate has increased dramatically in recent weeks from an average of 168,000 jabs per day in the last week of July to 262,000 a day in the week to Aug. 21.

All in all, vaccinations are running well ahead of the Doherty Institute’s modelling assumptions, and the rollout will be opened to everyone down to age 16 from next week.

This is all very promising, but Australia cannot yet match the Canadian roll-out that saw the percentage of its population fully vaccinated rise from where we are now to the equivalent of our 70 to 80 percent threshold in just 52 days.

At that rate, we would reach the threshold on Oct. 12, and it will certainly be later than that.

The reason Canada could go so fast was that it had plenty of supply of the preferred Pfizer and Moderna vaccines from about April onwards.

It has no domestic production of vaccines but placed large orders early in 2020 for all the vaccines then under development—something the Australian government failed to do. Instead, the Australian government concentrated on domestic production of the AZ vaccine, which met with some public resistance for reasons that are well known if not well-founded.

That is water under the bridge. Pfizer supplies have increased; Moderna becomes available in late September, and supplies of both are expected to increase dramatically from early October. It is then that we will have the capacity to match Canada’s peak pace of vaccination and reach the 70 percent threshold before end-October and 80 percent by mid-November.

But what can be done is one thing; what will be done is another.

Will Australian governments have the organisation to deliver a mass, speedy rollout, which—relative to the peak in Canada—would require 370,000 doses per day?

There are risks to both supply and demand. For example, will increased supplies of Pfizer and Moderna be delayed? Will there be enough capacity to deliver the jabs? And will vaccine hesitancy lead to demand petering out before the targets are reached?

These are all risks that need to be managed, but the greatest risk isn’t that we fail to reach the October or November thresholds; but that if we do, our state governments will be ultra-cautious and will refuse to lift restrictions in line with the agreed national cabinet plan.

As is becoming increasingly clear from current outbreaks in New South Wales, Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory, and other countries—Australia will need to learn to live with a certain degree of COVID infection, hospital admissions, and mortality, even with greater vaccine coverage.

Some state premiers do not seem ready to accept that, but as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on the weekend, we can’t remain locked down forever.

His challenge will be to lead the nation out of this zero-COVID mindset, even when it is the premiers who hold the keys that are keeping the nation locked down.