Immunologist: Hope on horizon as AstraZeneca vaccine nears approvals

Oxford University's coronavirus vaccine is cheaper to produce and transport than its competitors.

Oxford University's coronavirus vaccine is cheaper to produce and transport than its competitors. Photo: Getty

Australia has “lots of cause for hope in 2021”, an immunologist says, as the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine hurtles toward completion.

The vaccine, co-developed with Oxford University, is on track for approval in the United Kingdom this week.

However, there have been concerns it won’t be as effective as its counterpart from Pfizer and BioNTech, which is already being distributed in the UK, the United States and elsewhere.

A total delivery of 53.8 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses is due to arrive in Australia in 2021.

Despite running “ahead of schedule”, Health Minister Greg Hunt confirmed on Monday that Australia will stick to its timeline and begin rolling out its national COVID-19 vaccination program in March.

Dr Vanessa Bryant, a laboratory head in WEHI’s immunology division, has allayed fears, saying there is no way Australia’s strict Therapeutic Goods Administration would approve an ineffectual vaccine.

“Overall, I don’t think there’s a lot of cause for concern,” she told The New Daily. 

“Nothing is going to be approved without the regulatory agencies seeing the data.”

Her words came as scepticism swirled on Monday after AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot told The Sunday Times developers had figured out a “winning formula” that made their jab just as effective as rival candidates.

Pascal Soriot, executive director and CEO of AstraZeneca. Photo: Getty

Instead of elation, AstraZeneca’s announcement has been received in a somewhat lukewarm manner. That’s because the company’s reporting of trial results has been somewhat confusing.

Initially, partial trial results of its vaccine suggested the jab’s overall efficacy was 62 per cent.

While those results are impressive – and well above the vaccine registration level of 50 per cent – they’re much lower than the 95 per cent efficacy reported by Pfizer.

Later in November, AstraZeneca announced its vaccine had reached 90 per cent efficacy after a much smaller trial involving fewer than 3000 participants delivered stronger results when they were given a half dose and then a full dose by mistake, rather than two full doses.

Although this happy accident was welcome news, there were worries the low-dose group didn’t include anyone over the age of 55.

Concerns were raised again when AstraZeneca announced its vaccine’s overall efficacy was 70 per cent after combining the data from the two different dosing regimes – something ABC coronavirus broadcaster Dr Norman Swan slammed as “very unacceptable”.

Adding to this sense of unease is the fact AstraZeneca has not yet released its latest data to be peer reviewed, nor has it named a date for its release.

vaccine mandatory virus

Scott Morrison with staff member Gaby Atencio at AstraZeneca’s Sydney laboratories in August. Photo: AAP

“We think we have figured out the winning formula and how to get efficacy that, after two doses, is up there with everybody else,” Mr Soriot told The Sunday Times.

“I can’t tell you more because we will publish at some point.”

But for many scientists, “some point” is not a satisfactory timeline.

“Scientists are always a bit sceptical,” Dr Bryant said.

“We have a mantra: ‘We’d love to see the data’.”

Speaking to reporters on Monday, Mr Hunt dismissed concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine and the lack of evidence backing Mr Soriot’s claims.

“Our regulators are increasingly confident that the choices that we’ve made are likely to be backed up by regulatory approval,” Mr Hunt said.

“They’re the choices of the medical expert panel, then backed and put into action by the government.”

At this stage, Australia will have access to three vaccines that are all “on track to being highly available” and effective, Mr Hunt said.

It’s something Dr Bryant said Australians should be thankful for.

“We’re in such a good position,” she said.

“There’s lots of cause for hope in 2021, but it’s still a long road ahead of us.

“It’s not a magic bullet.

“It takes a while for everyone to have their two doses, so it’s going to take a bit of time. Be safe, wear your mask, socially distance. We’re not quite out of the woods yet, but things are looking great.”

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