Australian authorities will review the findings of British and European regulators over concerns about the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine – but continue to emphasise that the benefits outweigh the risks.
The review follows a decision in the United Kingdom to offer healthy adults aged under 30 an alternative to the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab following concerns over rare blood clots.
The European Medicines Agency also announced on Wednesday that the rare blood clots would be listed formally as a very rare side-effect of the AstraZeneca vaccine, though it did not announce any restrictions on use.
The Australian government said on Thursday it had asked the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) and the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) “to immediately consider and advise on the latest vaccination findings out of Europe and the UK”.
The health minister, Greg Hunt, said he wanted the health experts to provide the government with advice “fearlessly and frankly” based on “their best judgment of the balance of safety for Australians”.
“If they [Atagi] provide age restrictions or other variations, we’ll do it – we’ll adopt it,” Hunt told reporters in Melbourne.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, told reporters on Thursday he expected to receive updated advice “later this evening” – but he did not foreshadow any plans to change the vaccine rollout which is heavily reliant on locally-produced AstraZeneca doses.
Morrison said there was no advice to suggest there would be any change to the rollout, given Australia was currently focused on the 1B population group, the majority of whom were older Australians.
He said Australia also had access to alternative, Pfizer vaccines for groups such as frontline health workers and quarantine officials.
Morrison said Atagi would look at the evidence and weigh that “against the very positive benefits of the vaccine program”.
But the prime minister also urged people to “maintain a perspective” on the issues with the AstraZeneca vaccine, saying the advice in the UK was that “some 6,000 people’s lives [there] have already been saved by this very vaccine”.
“What we’re looking at here is an incidence of [this] clotting behaviour of some one-to-five for every million,” Morrison said.
“Now, to put that in some sort of perspective: the combined oral contraceptive pill, that can [have] adverse side effects of Venous thromboembolism, VTE, and that’s seven to 10 per 10,000.”
He also cited potentially serious side effects of a common antibiotic, amoxicillin, and paracetamol that occur at a significantly higher frequency than the incidence of unusual blood clots in people who have had the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Earlier, a spokesperson for the government said Australian regulators had already been working with their international counterparts to consider the latest international evidence.
Any updated advice will be provided to the federal government for “immediate consideration” and would be relayed to the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which includes all state and territory chief health officers.
The government spokesperson said federal, state and territory health ministers would discuss the issues at a ministerial meeting, and it would also be raised at the next national cabinet on Friday.
“The Australian government places safety above all else, as it has done throughout the pandemic, and will continue to follow the medical advice in protecting Australians,” the spokesperson said.
Australia’s chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, said the issues with the AstraZeneca vaccine would be weighed up by TGA and Atagi and “we’ll go from there”.
Kelly said authorities were mindful that even though possibly vaccine-related blood clotting was “extremely rare”, it could affect confidence in the vaccine.
“There seems to be a trend in younger people and, at least in the European data in women being more common, but I would really stress these are extremely rare events and like with any treatment, vaccine, medicine, we have to look at the risk and benefit,” Kelly told the ABC’s AM program.
“We do know that the benefit of vaccinations against this very serious disease of Covid is a really important component of our control.”
Kelly said vaccines were “the way out of the pandemic for the world, including Australia”.
He said authorities would seek to reassure people that AstraZeneca was “a very effective and extremely safe vaccine for most people”.
The review comes amid broader scrutiny over the government’s handling of the vaccine rollout. The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has pointed to difficulties in obtaining vaccine doses from overseas, including from Europe, as a key factor in missing early targets in the rollout.
The Nine newspapers reported on Thursday that 717,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine had been flown from the UK to Australia in February and March, but the source was initially kept quiet to prevent a domestic backlash in Britain, where Covid-19 infection rates remain high.
The Australian government refused to confirm or deny the report on Thursday.
At the same time, doctors have told Guardian Australia they want the Australian government to provide greater certainty on vaccine supply, stating they continue to be frustrated by delivery delays and insufficient stock.
The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, who was in Launceston on Thursday to support the Labor party ahead of the Tasmanian state election, took aim at the federal government over the vaccine rollout.
Albanese said the Morrison government’s performance was “pretty appalling” with Australia falling “way, way short” of its initial targets.
“The government this time ran out of premiers to blame so tried to blame the European Union earlier this week, and that only lasted 24 hours,” he told ABC radio in northern Tasmania.
An Australian National University researcher on Thursday raised concern that the government’s handling of allegations of sexual harassment could harm the fight against Covid, because trust in government is linked to the community’s willingness to be vaccinated.
Prof Kate Reynolds issued the warning after a new longitudinal survey found women’s confidence in government and willingness to be vaccinated both fell in 2020.