Labor calls on Morrison government to extend AstraZeneca manufacturing for the region

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Labor has called on the federal government to extend its vaccine contract with AstraZeneca, so the target of 60 million jabs for the region can be met more quickly.

Foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong and health spokesman Mark Butler said with low vaccination rates in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia – which have fully vaccinated just 2 per cent and 33 per cent of their populations respectively – there was “a dire health risk to people in Australia’s neighbourhood”.

In addition, they highlighted the risk of new, and more contagious variants emerging in unvaccinated populations close to Australia and “a risk to Australia’s geopolitical interests by undermining our reputation for being a good neighbour by not extending sufficient support in our region’s time of need”.

People gather in Denpasar this week to register for the AstraZeneca vaccine.Credit:Getty

“The remaining vaccines being produced by CSL should be diverted to the region,” the opposition said, “so that vaccines can be provided to Indonesia and others urgently” and the contract with CSL should be extended “to fulfil Mr Morrison’s promise of 60 million [for the region] doses quickly and with a vaccine that can be easily distributed”.

The current plan is for the AstraZeneca production line in Melbourne to be shut down once the contracted 50 million doses have been delivered, early next year.

To date, Australia has committed 40 million doses to our region and another 20 million in a partnership with UNICEF, which has called on Australia to ramp up its COVID-19 aid. But Australia has sent just 5.8 million doses to neighbouring countries including Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, Indonesia and Vietnam so far.

A spokesman for DFAT said Australia was allocating around 800,000 AstraZeneca vaccine doses for sharing with regional partners each week and had contributed $130 million to the COVAX vaccine-sharing facility.

Neither the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade nor the Health Department responded to questions about whether the government would look to reverse its decision and extend or renew the contract to manufacture AstraZeneca at the CSL plant in Melbourne.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is expected to announce another delivery of vaccine aid at the G20 summit in Rome in the coming days.

Vaccine expert and University of Sydney infectious diseases paediatrician Robert Booy said AstraZeneca was the most widely-used vaccine in the world and cost about $5 per double dose. Australia should be sending more of the vaccine to our near-neighbours, he said.

“It has a cost-benefit ratio which in the context of epidemics and pandemics strongly favours vaccination,” he said.

“PNG is in crisis, hospitals are overflowing, people are dying for a lack of medical care and the vaccination rate is well under 5 per cent. We can help by way of assisting with infrastructure, vaccine supplies, medication supplies, oxygen supplies and vaccine delivery.”

Of the 280 million vaccine doses procured by Indonesia to date, 219 million have been the Chinese-made Sinovac and 8.4 million have been the Sinopharm, also made in China, with the balance of about 53 million being Western vaccines including Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca.

Indonesia has a population of about 270 million people and needs to acquire at least another 200 million doses. Australia has pledged to donate 3.5 million doses of AstraZeneca to Jakarta. The country has reported more than four million infections and close to 150,000 deaths, but the true figures are likely much higher.

As Indonesia continues an immunisation scheme of momentous scale, there is disappointment about Canberra’s decision to stop making the vaccine at CSL.

“Indonesia still needs a lot of vaccines in the future,” said Professor Zubairi Djoerban, the head of the Indonesia Medical Association’s COVID-19 taskforce.

“We also plan to do the third shot next year. So Australia’s decision to stop the production is deeply regretted because many countries outside Australia still need them.”

Lowy Institute South-East Asia program director Ben Bland said, “it would be good for Australia to be more ambitious, that would always be well-received in the region”.

“Scott Morrison did promise 10 million extra doses for ASEAN countries by mid-2022 this week and that’s positive,” he said. “When you compare the population of Australia to the number of doses promised, if you are giving away twice as many as your population, that’s good.

“But, as a wealthy developed nation with the capacity to manufacture more vaccines, and a stated aim of deepening ties with South-East Asia, Australia should be thinking even more boldly.”

A spokesman for CSL said the company had no plans to produce any more of the vaccine beyond the initial contract of 50 million doses.

With Karuni Rompies

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