Here’s how Australia could get access to the world’s leading coronavirus vaccines through the COVAX facility
Thanks to a brand new global agreement, Australia has gained potential access to some of the world’s leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates.
The Federal Government has handed over more than $120 million to join the global vaccines facility known as COVAX, a World Health Organization (WHO) initiative allowing all countries to share not only the costs of vaccine development — but also the benefits.
But will it speed up the vaccine discovery process?
And with more than 150 other countries involved, how will any successful vaccine be shared and distributed fairly?
What is the vaccine deal Australia’s signed up to?
The premise of COVAX is simple: rich countries pay up-front for something that hasn’t yet been proven to work, in the hope the facility has the winning ticket.
But there’s a philanthropic twist — wealthy and poorer countries pay different amounts to participate, ensuring lower-income nations also get fair and equitable access to any future vaccines.
The WHO is working with the epidemic response group CEPI and the Vaccine Alliance of governments and organisations, known as Gavi, to try to level the playing field.
As Australia is a developed country, the Government has paid $123 million for access to the group.
But that money also acts as a down payment, meaning if COVAX develops a successful vaccine, Australia has a $123 million credit to spend on vaccine doses.
If the successful vaccine comes from elsewhere, the money is lost.
It’s a wide-scale lottery and governments around the world are buying tickets to save lives and stimulate their economies.
But they won’t know if their gamble has paid off for some time.
If there’s a successful coronavirus vaccine, who gets it first?
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the COVAX deal “gives us a place at the front at the queue”.
But it’s more like we’re equal-first at the front of the queue with 150 other countries.
Under the plan, all countries that have signed-up — whether they’re developed or developing — will initially receive enough doses for 3 per cent of their population.
The idea is that will cover those on the front line of the pandemic — the health and social care workers.
Then, additional doses would be delivered until 20 per cent of a nation’s population is covered.
The WHO wants those doses used to immunise high-risk groups, like the elderly and people who have compromised immune systems.
Is vaccinating 20 per cent of the population enough?
The Federal Government has said it’s secured access to vaccines to cover up to 50 per cent of Australia’s population.
However, the WHO says no country will receive enough doses to vaccinate more than 20 per of its population until all countries in the group can.
Professor Tony Cunningham, director of the Westmead Institute’s Centre for Virus Research, University of Sydney said to get adequate herd immunity to prevent the spread of COVID-19 throughout the population, it’s estimated we may need upwards of 60 to 70 per cent of the population being immune.
So why then has the Government signed-on to a deal where initially, it will only get enough doses of a successful vaccine for 20 per cent of the population?
“It’s a start, and it’s a good start. It’s better than making the wrong guess and being at the back of the queue.
“You’ll be able to immunise your health-care workers, you’ll be able to immunise your high-risk populations and that means the death rate will come down substantially.”
So does this deal mean there’ll be a vaccine produced faster?
The development of a vaccine hinges on science, but scientists need money to fund their research.
The WHO says that’s where the COVAX facility can really shine — with so many countries funding its research, it’s increased the chances of finding a successful COVID-19 vaccine.
But it also says it needs more money.
Its fundraising target is $US2 billion ($2.8 billion) by the end of this year, and so far, it’s only reached $US1.4 billion.
Professor Cunningham said the deal meant there would be more options, increasing the chances of a successful vaccine.
Will this deal interfere with Australia’s other vaccine deals?
Put simply, no.
The Government has a multi-vaccine strategy, where it’s casting the net wide in the hope it’ll catch something.
It’s already signed a deal with UK-based drug company AstraZeneca to secure the potential COVID-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University if its trials prove successful.
And interestingly, that vaccine is actually part of COVAX’s portfolio, along with 8 other candidates.
So aren’t we investing in the same vaccine twice?
Australia’s separate deal with AstraZeneca means if the Oxford vaccine is proved effective and safe in the current trials around the world, Australia will receive the vaccine formula straight away and be allowed to manufacture it domestically.
So in that instance, the Government wouldn’t need to rely solely on the COVAX deal to wait for doses to be distributed.
But there are currently more than 160 vaccine candidates in pre-clinical and clinical trials, including 29 undergoing clinical trials in humans.
Professor Cunningham said the COVAX deal allows the Government to keep its options open, all while helping poorer countries get access to potential vaccines too.
“Australia has adopted the correct approach, morally, ethically, from a health point of view and also economically,” he said.
“It helps us to prevent the spread as much as we can in our region, not just our country.”