‘Not time for blame game’: former Atagi representative says Morrison’s AstraZeneca comments ‘unfair’ | Health
Scott Morrison’s decision to blame the government’s immunisation advisers for delays in the Covid-19 vaccine rollout has been labelled “unfair” and “disappointing” by a recent member of the group.
Debra Petrys, the consumer representative on the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) for nine years before her retirement in June, made the comments to Guardian Australia.
On Wednesday the prime minister said Atagi’s “very cautious” approach to AstraZeneca had “considerably” slowed the rollout and “put us behind”.
Atagi’s co-chair, professor Allen Cheng, has also pushed back against Morrison by noting that Atagi’s role is to provide advice, but the federal government remains responsible for making decisions, and for the vaccination rollout.
Australia’s vaccine rollout has suffered from an over-reliance on domestically produced AstraZeneca vaccines, which were found to cause extremely rare but potentially deadly blood clots only after the rollout commenced overseas. Just 12% of eligible people aged 16 and over have been fully vaccinated.
In April Atagi advised people under 50 to get Pfizer vaccines, as the risk of complications from blood clots from AstraZeneca was greater than the risk of Covid-19 for that group. The age was later lifted to 59.
But after the Delta strain of Covid entered Australia Morrison opened eligibility for AstraZeneca to under 40s and encouraged them to speak to their GPs by extending the commonwealth indemnity and rebate for consultations.
On Wednesday, Morrison said Atagi had “been very cautious and that had a massive impact on the rollout of the vaccine program, it really did”.
“It slowed it considerably and put us behind – and we wish that wasn’t the result, but it was,” he told 2GB Radio.
Petrys said she was “disappointed” by the comments, describing them as “a bit unfair”, and adding “I don’t think it was helpful”.
“This isn’t the time for a blame game – everyone has made the decisions they’ve made which were the best decisions with the evidence present at that time,” she told Guardian Australia.
“When we made the first decision in April it was well before Delta came into Australia and, looking at the risks and benefits, I firmly believe it was the right decision.”
Current and former Atagi members are subject to ongoing confidentiality obligations regarding their deliberations, but Petrys said she had spoken out because “Atagi has been unfairly put into the spotlight at this time”.
Petrys, who worked for 35 years in the field of coordinating immunisations and the consumer side of public health, said Atagi had deliberated over the blood clot issue for “a long time” over Easter before the announcement on 8 April.
“It didn’t seem right to keep recommending a vaccine that was having these implications for a certain age group,” she said.
Petrys noted Atagi “never made a definitive decision” that under 40s should not take AstraZeneca, leaving them the option of consulting their GPs to get access, for example in the event of changed circumstances like fresh outbreaks.
“We know this creates confusion, but what has been reiterated time and time again is that people want to know the vaccine is safe.
“Knowing this would impact on consumer confidence, it wasn’t an easy decision to make by any means but I felt it was right.”
On Wednesday, Cheng responded to Morrison by noting that Atagi is “an independent expert committee, with terms of reference to provide expert advice to the health minister”.
“Based on evolving evidence, we’ve had to change that advice as new information became available,” he told Guardian Australia.
“We’re always very conscious of the impacts of our recommendations on the program and vaccine confidence generally.”
Asked if the government remains responsible for choosing to implement advice, he replied: “Yes, they make decisions, they run the program, we provide advice – those are our terms of reference.”
Australia was slow out of the blocks to sign vaccine deals with Novavax and Moderna, leaving the rollout reliant on AstraZeneca and Pfizer, which is in short supply due to Australia’s small initial order of 10m doses to cover a population of 25 million.
In February, Australia ordered a further 10m doses of Pfizer, doubling its order again to 40m in April after the warning was applied to AstraZeneca – but supplies continue to be constrained, with most doses expected in the final three months of the year.
Bill Bowtell, an adjunct professor at UNSW and public health expert who led Australia’s anti-AIDs fight, said the federal government had “completely failed to reduce risk by diversifying supply in July/August last year”.
“Had there been on hand sufficient supplies of AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna and whatever other vaccines were available, 60 to 70% of the population would be fully vaccinated by today,” Bowtell said.
“If there were … two other mRNA vaccines, in sufficient quantity, it wouldn’t really matter what Atagi had said about AstraZeneca.
“The blame is on Scott Morrison, Greg Hunt and the people who wrongly advised the government that there was no rush, no race and, as a result, no vaccine.”
Petrys said Atagi did not make the call to focus on producing AstraZeneca locally at the expense of bigger import deals with other suppliers, but added it was “unfair to fully blame the government for that”.
“The idea was to rely on a vaccine to be produced in Australia, to be given to Australians. In hindsight that probably wasn’t the best decision.”