‘One of the largest public health exercises our nation has ever faced.’

Pharmacist administers a vaccine. Source: PSA.
Pharmacist administers a vaccine. Source: PSA.

Australia needs all immunising hands on deck to beat COVID-19, despite lobbying from doctors’ groups against pharmacy, says one leading pharmacist

Anthony Tassone, Victorian branch president of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, told the AJP that as a safe and effective vaccine looks to be drawing nearer, pharmacists are more necessary than ever in immunisation.

“Make no mistake, there has been active and intense lobbying from doctor’s groups across the country that pharmacies should be excluded from the COVID-19 vaccine rollout based old and worn out arguments of pharmacies and pharmacist immunisers not being equipped to ensure social distancing, post-vaccine observation, management of potential adverse events and cold chain management.

“We know this is not the case.

“Pharmacies have demonstrated our competence and capabilities in delivering vaccination services—gaining more and more trust and confidence from the public.

“Community pharmacies played a very significant role in Australia achieving record numbers of vaccinations for influenza during 2020—as more pharmacists become qualified to deliver immunisations and the public become increasingly aware and accepting of this service from their local pharmacy.

“This was during a time where some general practices transitioned to telehealth and were not offering face to face consultations.

“We need to get on with working together as a health professional team to not only ensure broad accessibility for patients based on their own needs and preferences – but to also be ón message’ to explain to our patients the benefits of getting vaccinated and the potential risks and other considerations. 

“Given community pharmacies continue to be the most accessible and frequently visited primary healthcare destination in Australia—particularly in rural and regional communities—it further highlights how important our role will be in the COVID-19 vaccine program.”

Health officials have updated Australians on the status of COVID-19 vaccination: a rollout expected in this country from as early as March 2021, and a watchful eye kept on the UK experience.

Acting Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly said in a statement on Monday that “a safe and effective vaccine is the key to winning this race” and that researchers have made “huge” progress, and “remarkably quickly, especially given there has never been a successful vaccine for a coronavirus, and several of the most promising vaccines are based on new technology”.

“I believe a vaccine is likely to be available to Australians from as early as next March,” he said.

“Other countries, such as the United States and United Kingdom, have emergency use provisions that allow for public access prior to full safety and efficacy assessment, where they are facing an immediate health crisis with an increasing daily loss of life.

“The UK has already used these provisions for the Pfizer vaccine. In Australia, there is a series of robust regulatory steps we must take before any COVID-19 vaccine is approved for widespread use.”

He said that as it stands, the TGA has been provided with early data for the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines, and the next step “is for the sponsors to submit all the required data on, for example, clinical studies, toxicology studies, chemistry, manufacturing and risk management so that the TGA can complete its evaluation”.

He noted that a COVID-19 vaccine will not be mandatory in Australia, however “It is only when a sizable proportion of the Australian population is vaccinated that we will round the last bend and the finish line will emerge”.

Last week, in a press conference with Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the TGA’s John Skerritt, Health Minister Greg Hunt said that Australia is doing “magnificently” in its bid to halt the pandemic.

This compared to the UK – which is set to begin its rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Tuesday (UK time) – where there is “a seven day moving average of over 14,500 cases,” Mr Hunt said.

“But frankly, the work that’s being done in the UK will give Australia and the world very important data, very important lessons both on the rollout and the efficacy of this particular vaccine,” he said.

“We are on track for first vaccinations, beginning with our health workers and our aged care residents subject to approvals, in March.”

John Skerritt said that, in relation to the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, “In each case, the companies have given us a reasonable amount of data. We have not got complete data on any of them because globally these companies are still assessing their final data”.

“If we receive a full submission in the next week or two, that late January, beginning of February, well ahead of the March date the government has mentioned that we will be in a position to approve one or more,” he said.

“I’ve been asked which of the three horses is leading the race, well, it changes by the day and it often depends on the progress and completion of clinical trials run globally.”

Mr Tassone said that, “The imminent approval and availability of vaccinations to protect against COVID-19 is a very encouraging development in our global fight against this potentially deadly virus”. 

“The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccination program will be one of the largest public health exercises our nation has ever faced,” Mr Tassone said.

“We literally need all immuniser ‘hands on deck’ to help ensure as many Australians are vaccinated and protected against this virus to help return to as normal life as we can. 

“Given community pharmacy is clearly stated as an administration site for availability in the Australian government COVID-19 vaccination policy, there must be no argument or question as to whether pharmacy should have a role.”

More on AJP readers’ thoughts on a COVID-19 vaccine here.

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  1. Anthony Zehetner

    I wonder how many community pharmacies may be equipped to store the -70•C version of the vaccine?

    • Bente Hart

      I wonder how may GPs or small hospitals are.

    • Jarrod McMaugh

      Currently, no primary healthcare providers in Australia have storage facilities that reach those temperatures.

      This is not only due to the cost involved in purchasing and maintaining such facilities, but also the significant OH&S issues associated with working at those temperatures.

      It should be noted that the distribution of these vaccines includes the provision of specialised storage systems, which will be usable in both general practice and in pharmacy, as well as nurse led clinics, council delivered vaccination clinics, and all other places where vaccinators currently provide immunisation services.

      In fact, these devices are designed to be transported to extremely remote areas of the world without standard electricity or other utilities in place. It won’t be an issue for any immunisation provider to receive them here in Australia.

    • M M

      I don’t think the Australian government knows how to manage Covid-19 vaccines and the vaccination process.

    • Anthony Zehetner

      Again, this was a question before we had the Oxford and other vaccines which did not require -70C storage conditions. It did not single out pharmacists compared to GPs who also generally don’t have -70C freezers. Rather my question at the time was how the community roll out would work. There was talk that Pfizer would supply the specialised fridge with vaccine sales, which reminded me of the Ethical Nutrients fridges in pharmacies when refrigerated acidophilus was first released and not yet heat-stable.

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