Having last year promised to put Australia at the front of the global coronavirus vaccination queue, the Federal Government now finds itself under pressure over the pace of its vaccine rollout.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison this month defended the Government’s record, claiming Australia had outperformed Germany, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan at the same stage of their vaccination rollouts.
“It is true that at this stage of our rollout, it is actually better than where Germany was, better than where New Zealand was, better than where South Korea and Japan was, and so I think there will be some important context in the weeks ahead as we see the significant ramp up of the distribution network,” he said.
How does Australia’s vaccine rollout compare? RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.
ABC News: Rani Hayman
Mr Morrison’s claim is misleading.
When he made his claim during an April 6 media conference, Australia’s vaccination program had been underway for 43 days.
At that point, a total of 854,983 jabs had been given — equivalent to about 3.4 for every 100 people.
That was slightly behind where Germany was 43 days into its vaccination program, but ahead of New Zealand, Japan and South Korea.
Mr Morrison was therefore not accurate when he suggested Australia “at this stage of our rollout” was outperforming all four of the countries he chose to list.
Moreover, by the standards being set by member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Australia’s vaccination program was slow to get started, and has ramped up more slowly.
The OECD’s 37 member nations had delivered an average of 6.2 jabs per 100 people at the 43-day mark of their respective vaccination programs, compared to Australia’s 3.4 doses.
And in terms of their overall efforts, an average of 22.4 doses per 100 people had been given across all 37 OECD nations by April 6.
Whether Australia’s relatively cautious approach when it comes to vaccine approval — and hence its slower start for the rollout — represents a prudent strategy is a different question.
Moreover, not all vaccines are equivalent, making international comparisons difficult.
Progress across individual countries depends on which vaccines are being used, and when agreements were struck with manufacturers to secure them.
These nuances, discussed in more detail below, are not captured in the raw numbers.
‘This stage of the rollout’
AP: Nick Perry
Mr Morrison made his claim 43 days after Australia began its rollout, and compared its progress with that of Japan, Germany, South Korea and New Zealand.
Fact Check, therefore, assessed the rollout of vaccines across various countries 43 days from when their first jab was given.
The cumulative number of vaccines is expressed as a rate per 100 people, to account for variations in population.
Mr Morrison adopted the same approach when using a Facebook post to argue Australia’s rollout was advancing in a manner consistent with other countries.
In terms of assessing a country’s progress, the focus would ideally be on the number of people partly and fully vaccinated relative to the population, rather than on cumulative vaccine doses.
Different vaccines complicate comparisons
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Critically, not all vaccines are the same.
For example, the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine — which will not be used in Australia — requires only one dose.
The AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been widely used in Australia this year, requires two shots, recommended 12 weeks apart.
The Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine, also relied upon in Australia, likewise requires two doses, but spaced three weeks apart.
But the combination of vaccines used varies from country to country.
So far, Germany has been administering three types — Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna — while New Zealand has been using Pfizer alone.
South Korea, like Australia, has been using a mix of Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
AP: Ahn Young-joon
As UNSW Professor of Epidemiology Marylouise McLaws pointed out in an email to Fact Check, any comparison would ideally focus on countries using vaccines with the same duration between the first and second doses.
“Otherwise, a country using a vaccine with shorter duration between doses will cover their population faster,” Professor McLaws said.
Experts consulted by Fact Check also made the point that when it comes to collective immunity, the first jab generally adds more than the second.
However, in the case of Australia, comprehensive and up-to-date data showing the number of people who have received a first or second dose was not available at the time Mr Morrison made his claim.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health confirmed that daily and weekly updates of more comprehensive vaccination statistics had been agreed, following an April 9 National Cabinet meeting.
In the absence of better data, Fact Check relied on the cumulative number of jabs given per 100 people across various countries, bearing in mind the limitations of this approach.
Progress so far
Australia’s daily vaccination rate has gradually ramped up since the first jabs were administered on February 22.
By April 6, a total of 854,983 vaccination jabs had been given.
How does Australia compare after 43 days?
When Mr Morrison made his claim, Australia’s vaccination program had delivered 3.4 jabs for every 100 people.
Figures compiled by the UK-based Our World in Data show this rate was less than Germany’s at the same point in its rollout, which had administered 4.1 doses per 100 people.
But 43 days in, New Zealand had delivered just 1.7 jabs per 100 people, while Japan had managed only 0.8.
South Korea had delivered 2.1 doses per 100 people, though it had only been vaccinating for 39 days when Mr Morrison gave his media conference.
Australia’s rollout was ahead of New Zealand’s, Japan’s and South Korea’s at the same “stage”, as Mr Morrison claimed. However, he inaccurately stated that Australia was ahead of Germany.
Mr Morrison appears to have chosen for his vaccine comparison countries that are among the most sluggish in the OECD.
After 43 days, Australia’s rate of 3.4 jabs per 100 people placed it eighth lowest in the OECD, ahead of Mexico, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Canada, France and Chile.
It was also below the OECD average of 6.2 jabs per 100 people.
After 43 days, Israel had administered about 57 jabs per 100 people, while Switzerland and the UK had both administered more than 10 jabs per 100 people. In the US, 9.6 shots per 100 people had been given.
Adding some context
In making his claim, Mr Morrison suggested his goal was to provide “some important context in the weeks ahead as we see the significant ramp up of the distribution network”.
Benchmarking Australia’s progress at a certain “stage” of the rollout does not take into account when various countries started vaccinating.
Germany, for example, started its rollout on December 27, 2020, almost two months before Australia.
AP: Matthias Bein
By April 6, it had therefore been vaccinating its population for 100 days, with 18.7 jabs per 100 people having been administered.
OECD nations, meanwhile, had delivered an average of 22.4 jabs per 100 people — more than six times Australia’s vaccination rate.
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Israel had administered the equivalent of 117.5 jabs per 100 people, while the United Kingdom had given 55.1, the United States 50.4 and Canada 17.9.
In fact, Australia’s vaccination rate was the fourth-lowest in the OECD, only ahead of three of the four nations singled out by Mr Morrison: Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
Catherine Bennett, Deakin University’s Chair in Epidemiology, told Fact Check that she would treat Australia’s delayed start date as a separate issue to the pace of its rollout because it “did not have to compromise [on safety] by rushing to an emergency approval process” for its vaccines.
While this might have pushed back the rollout date, she said, “safety is a non-negotiable when not in a dire transmission context”.
“Arguably,” she added, “a later start gave us more lead time to plan and prepare, but, in reality, there is always going to be some ironing out and scaling up that can only begin when you start the physical process.”
The problem with making comparisons
Tony Blakely, Professorial Fellow at Melbourne University, told Fact Check that while it was valid to compare different countries, there were several pitfalls.
He said the “main threat” to the validity of international comparisons arose from the ability of governments to secure the supply of whatever vaccines they had chosen.
“Everything after that is within the country’s control,” Professor Blakely said.
He noted that New Zealand, for example, had chosen Pfizer early on whereas Australia pivoted to it later due to “some unluckiness”.
This meant New Zealand had not only secured enough doses for everyone, but “they will be well ahead of us” in the manufacturer’s queue.
Professor McLaws said even once New Zealand secured its supply of Pfizer’s vaccine, “it’s not a reasonable comparison” because of the different challenges linked to different vaccines.
Professor McLaws pointed out the Pfizer vaccine, for example, requires two doses three weeks apart, compared to two doses 12 weeks apart for AstraZeneca’s vaccine.
It also involved ultra-cold storage and transport, unfreezing and reconstitution before being injected, as well as dose wastage.
Experts also highlight practical differences between countries.
Professor Bennett noted that New Zealand had a smaller geography and population size than Australia, without the added layer of state health systems.
She also said Australia had opted for “a more complex rollout” with multiple delivery options, including the use of GPs.
She said this meant more risk points during the rollout but with the possible benefit of better vaccine uptake, “especially as we manage … complex information on the small but extremely low risk of serious adverse reactions”.
Professor Blakely also highlighted Australia’s “fractured” approach to delivering healthcare across state, federal and local jurisdictions, including the use of GPs, which in combination made for a tricky rollout exercise.
He said that when it came to issues such as setting up mass vaccination centres, Australia’s health system had more in common with countries such as the US.
Principal researchers, Josh Gordon and David Campbell