Butler orders swift inquiry into COVID-19 vaccine purchasing

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Butler orders swift inquiry into COVID-19 vaccine purchasing

By James Massola

Health Minister Mark Butler has ordered a snap inquiry into Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine supplies, future variant jabs and how the rollout was caught short at the height of the pandemic.

The review, to be led by respected former Health Department chief Jane Halton, will also examine the deals struck by the former government to purchase vaccines and therapeutic treatments.

Health Minister Mark Butler will announce an inquiry into vaccine procurement.

Health Minister Mark Butler will announce an inquiry into vaccine procurement.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Butler said with 300 Australians losing their lives to COVID-19 each week and a rising number of cases of the Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, the review would take place over “weeks, not many months”.

“Given the developments I’ve talked about both in terms of the spread of these new subvariants but also the opportunity presented by new vaccine and treatment products, we need to make sure that we have the best information available to us sooner rather than later,” he said.

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The minister stood by criticism of the former government’s decision not to sign contracts for four to six vaccines and delays in signing deals with companies such as Pfizer for sufficient supply.

“Other countries were securing deals with Pfizer in June, July and August of 2020. Our negotiations were just let slip, they just weren’t treated as a priority. Instead, we didn’t ink a deal with Pfizer until Christmas Eve, months after,” he said.

But Butler said the Halton review would not be a full-blown inquiry or royal commission into Australia’s handling of COVID-19, which would probably happen at a later date.

According to a source familiar with details of the inquiry, who asked not to be named as they were not authorised to discuss it, the government was not confident the Health Department had vaccine procurement right for the next two years.

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“They [Health] didn’t order enough or get the contracts in place last time. So they’re ordering an inquiry into past and future vaccine procurement,” the source said. “The health minister and the prime minister want reassurance that they’ve got it right this time, as they didn’t two years ago.”

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The former government originally bought 53.8 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine, 10 million of Pfizer and 51 million of Novavax. Further deals were done to ensure supply following concerns about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine and Novavax taking longer than expected.

It faced fierce criticism for its initial handling of the vaccine rollout, including that former prime minister Scott Morrison should have personally lobbied Pfizer boss, Albert Bourla.

Another 10 million Pfizer doses were purchased in February 2021, 20 million in April 2021 and smaller amounts from the United Kingdom, Poland and Singapore.

Australia now has 85 million doses of Pfizer for use in 2022 and 2023 and 15 million doses of Moderna for 2022.

Morrison made clear his disappointment with the department’s handling of the initial rollout when he brought in Lieutenant-General John Frewen to co-ordinate logistics.

More than 95 per cent of Australians aged over 16 are fully vaccinated, which means they have had two shots. But the rollout of third shots is lagging at about 70 per cent. About 2.3 million of the 6.5 million people eligible for a fourth or “winter” dose have had it.

The eligibility for children aged six months to four years old is expected to be approved in the coming months.

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