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Australia COVID-19 vaccine attitudes differ in Australia as experts say we're at a 'precarious time'

19:51  28 october  2020
19:51  28 october  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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Andrea Vincita hasn't seen her family in a year.

The IT worker from Brisbane, who left them behind in Jakarta to move to Australia in 2013, has instead resigned herself to daily messages and video calls.

And as Australia's strict international border policy continues, Ms Vincita understands that — for the foreseeable future at least — this will be her reality.

That is, until a COVID-19 vaccine comes along.

"I know this may be a long time away as it needs to go worldwide," she said.

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"My family has to be vaccinated in Indonesia, so I don't think I will feel safe enough, or comfortable enough to meet [face to face] until that happens, even if the borders are open.

"But I'm looking forward to the vaccine so we can be safe again."

Ms Vincita — who describes herself as firmly pro-vaccine — is among the majority of Australians ready and willing to take the jab.

But as the search for a COVID-19 vaccine ramps up, with researchers and pharmaceutical companies moving at unprecedented speed, some in the community are not so sure.

Exclusive data compiled by the ABC shows there is hesitation, with many questioning whether the vaccine will be safe.

And while most Australians said they were willing to take any COVID-19 vaccine, 12 per cent said they were either "very unlikely" or "somewhat unlikely" to take it.

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Julie Leask, a social scientist at the University of Sydney specialising in vaccine research, described the data as "fairly predictable".

"We've got the majority of Australians willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine so the cup is more than half full," she said.

"There is [always] going to be a number of people who are a bit cautious and they understandably want to learn more about the vaccine before they really commit to it.

"And then there's a small number who will always be against vaccination."

Professor Leask, who has been studying vaccine trends for more than two decades, said Australia — and the world — was at a "precarious time right now".

"It could go either way," she said.

"We could see more and more confidence of that intention to have that COVID-19 vaccine.

"Or we could get more hesitancy. And a lot will depend on what happens globally, particularly with what's happening in the US and also how our own government manages [it]."

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Efficacy and safety critical

Communication from the Federal Government has become a key factor in public confidence surrounding any COVID-19 vaccine.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was forced to backflip on comments last month indicating he would make a coronavirus vaccine mandatory — comments that were seized upon by anti-vaccination groups.

And while there is no guarantee a COVID-19 vaccine will work, or even be approved, experts have been imploring politicians and governments to stick to the science to ensure smooth a rollout to guarantee herd immunity.

"Scientifically, in order to slow this virus right down and spread through the population, we need immunity throughout the population of 60 per cent," Westmead Institute founder and vaccine expert Tony Cunningham said.

"That means you've got to have a vaccine that's of maximal efficacy, but you also need to reassure the population to make sure that we get maximum uptake.

"The population has got to be assured of safety. That's critical."

Professor Cunningham, who has been involved in vaccine research for almost 40 years, said much of the uncertainty stemmed back to the speed at which vaccine safety and efficacy trials were moving.

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He said these trials that historically took at least four years were being streamlined to one year.

He said critics would be looking for "any weaknesses".

"It's a challenging situation," he said.

"The whole system is moving so fast.

"We're trying to match up the urgency of thousands and thousands of deaths in Europe and the US against ensuring that we don't make a misstep and have a vaccine that's unsafe.

"That would be a disaster. It would ruin public confidence in vaccines."

Rollout timeframe still a guessing game

Locally, the Australian Government has given repeated assurances any COVID-19 would have to pass the Therapeutic Goods Administration's "rigorous assessment and approval processes".

And despite the global vaccine race being turned into a potent international political weapon, no vaccine anywhere in the world has yet passed phase 3 trials.

As well as being part of the COVAX initiative, the Australian Government has backed in the University of Queensland's (UQ) vaccine candidate, which is in phase 1 human trials and aiming for approval mid-next year.

But the vaccine being developed by Oxford University and medical firm AstraZeneca is considered by experts as the frontrunner. That vaccine, which the Government has committed to buying 33.8 million doses, is in late stage phase 3 trials.

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The ABC understands Oxford will release efficacy findings on "older adults" in a matter of weeks.

However, there is still no concrete timetable on when this vaccine could roll out, if approved, with Federal Budget papers earlier this month indicating a rollout from July 1 next year as an "earlier" time frame.

Industry Minister Karen Andrews said on Sunday if the UQ or Oxford vaccines were not approved, other global frontrunners in the race could take "nine to 12 months" to deliver in Australia, after approval.

There's no 'undue pressure'

CSL, Australia's only vaccine manufacturer, has been ramping up its technology behind the scenes to locally produce the Oxford-AstraZeneca candidate and is in a separate commercial arrangement with UQ.

Russell Basser said the company was actively working with the Government to address community concerns and ensure any vaccine was produced safely.

"We have a big task, it's an important responsibility" he said.

"But I don't see any politicisation of the process here. There's no undue pressure for us to do thing in haste — there's certainly pressure to do things urgently — but not by bypassing normal proper processes."

Meanwhile, back in her Brisbane bedroom, Andrea Vincita is hopeful the trials run smoothly so she can be reunited with her family.

She said as long as it passed phase 3 trials she would have "total confidence" in the vaccine.

"I guess it's the of cutting corners I don't want to see," she said.

"I feel like as long as all the information is displayed clearly to the public I hope it's enough for the public to have confidence."

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