A Guide To Australia's Strategy For Dispensing The COVID-19 Vaccine

Luke Fitzpatrick


The COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed a level of social and economic disruption unseen in recent decades. A well-planned immunization strategy not only allows Australia, unable to produce vaccines at scale, for now, to access the supplies required; it ensures a faster rollout and a quicker pathway to the high level of immunization needed for a return to a new normal. So what is the strategy that will take Australia to mass immunization against COVID-19?

Who is responsible for developing a strategy?

The Australian government, through the Department of Health, has developed and announced its COVID-19 Vaccine and Treatment Strategy. The government will continue to leverage expert advice to refine the strategy. The COVID-19 Vaccines and Treatments for Australia – Science and Industry Technical Advisory Group will provide expert advice to the government on selecting, purchasing, and manufacturing safe vaccines.

Another advisory group, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) COVID-19 Working Group, offers technical advice to the Minister for Health on the immunization program for COVID-19 vaccines.

What is the strategy?

The stated goal of the COVID-19 Vaccine and Treatment Strategy is to provide early access to and delivery of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines and treatments as soon as they are available. The five areas covered by the strategy are:

  • Research and development - This component includes identifying and supporting the latest research to expedite research and manufacture. The government has allocated $333 million to improving the health system's response and to develop vaccines, treatments, therapeutics, and diagnostics.
  • Purchase and manufacturing - The government continues to secure supplies of vaccines (as well as materials and services needed to administer the vaccines) through advance purchase agreements while boosting local (under license) manufacturing capacity through investments.
  • International partnerships - This pillar includes partnerships with Pacific and southeast Asian countries to drive the development of safe, effective vaccines and treatment.
  • Regulation and safety - This element of the strategy includes making use of existing Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) regulatory processes to facilitate faster access to vaccines and treatments.
  • Immunization administration and monitoring - This component of the strategy encompasses using the latest, updated health advice - including from the ATAGI - to execute national vaccination policies and programs. Transportation, storage, and distribution of vaccines are crucial elements, as is the government's comprehensive monitoring and surveillance plan to ensure ongoing safety.

How will the strategy be controlled, regulated, and measured?

The Australian government is continuing to work closely with vaccine developers to track progress and safety. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) is responsible for assessing COVID-19 vaccines for safety, quality, and effectiveness before they are approved for use in Australia.

Along with streamlining existing regulatory processes to speed up the approval of safe, effective vaccines, the TGA will leverage its existing cooperative relationships with international bodies. For example, it will work with entities like the International Coalition of Medicines Regulatory Authorities and the World Health Organization to ensure safety while supporting access.

The ground-level details and processes for controlled and regulated deployment will rest in the hands of state/territory governments and departments of health. For example, the WA Department of Health, NSW Ministry of Health and NSW Local Health Districts and Networks, and Victorian Health Services are working on ways to deliver the vaccine to their state's population. These include using hospitals and creating hubs for delivering the shots.

The vaccines will be dispensed in phases based on priority groups, such as frontline health facility workers and quarantine facility workers. The states will likely be responsible for this aspect, whilst the Commonwealth government will be in charge of implementing dispensing for residential aged care and disability care sectors. Once a person has been immunized, this will be recorded on their entry in the Australian Immunisation Register.

The federal government will be developing a comprehensive monitoring and surveillance plan to review the ongoing safety of vaccines. States/territories will likely have their own strategy for monitoring and measurement. For example, in NSW, NSW Health will monitor and measure by using existing surveillance infrastructure and processes.

This includes convening an NSW Health COVID-19 Safety Expert Panel of immunization and other clinical specialists, to check for potential adverse events. It will establish an inquiry under the Public Health Act 2010, along with helping with assessments through the National Vaccine Safety Investigation Group (VSIG). It will also benchmark and share information with international partners.

What is the role of technology in the strategy?

Technology will be an essential tool in every element of the strategy. Research, development, and manufacturing require sophisticated infrastructure ranging from specialist facilities to manufacturing equipment and analytical instruments. Local researchers have drawn upon newer and promising vaccine-development approaches such as mRNA technology to create additional vaccine candidates more quickly.

Distribution, logistics, and tracking technologies will be used in the storage and transportation of vaccines. The Pfizer vaccine, for instance, needs to be refrigerated, and contracted logistics providers Linfox and DHL will need to use technologies like temperature sensors to fulfill their obligation to track and report storage temperatures to the Australian government.

Specialist software, too, is essential. Accenture has been contracted to design and implement the necessary software for tracking the vaccine across each stage of the supply chain. Integrated databases merging data collection at the supply-chain stage with databases at dispensing hubs (such as hospitals, GP clinics, and pharmacies) could also be necessary for comprehensive monitoring and tracking.

When will the strategy be launched? Has it already?

The strategy was detailed and published as early as August 2020 and by acting quickly Australia had secured 117 million doses of various vaccines by November 2020. The first doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be available for dispensing in late February 2021.

Since SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) was first identified in December 2019, the resulting pandemic has triggered global social and economic disruption. Without a vaccine, lockdowns and restrictions, and other disruptive measures will likely continue to be a feature of countries all over the world.

An unparalleled drive to create a vaccine has already resulted in a number of promising candidates, but without a focused strategy, access and mass dispensing to Australia's adult population will be uncoordinated, patchy, and slow.

The Australian government, drawing upon expert advice from panels like the COVID-19 Vaccines and Treatments for Australia – Science and Industry Technical Advisory Group and the ATAGI, has quickly formulated a strategy. The overarching goal of the strategy is to deliver safe, effective vaccines to Australians fairly and rapidly.

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Academic Speaker | Freelance Journalist | I have contributed to a variety of publications such as Forbes, Tech In Asia, and The Next Web. I cover a variety of topics ranging from fintech, big data, AI, blockchain, to lifestyle and breaking news stories.


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