How could a vaccine help the Australian economy return to normal?

Senior News Journalist · 16 December 2020
COVID-19 vaccinations have begun in the UK, the US and Canada, with Australia planning to start inoculating in the coming months. Could a vaccine help the Australian economy and way of life return to normal?

Woman wearing face mask
Australians may be hoping a COVID-19 vaccine could help life return to normal by kick-starting the economy. Image source: Zigres, Shutterstock.

The world has been keenly tuning into news of potential breakthroughs on a number of COVID-19 vaccines in recent months. While many have had promising results following various stages of trial, the University of Queensland will not be proceeding with its candidate after multiple participants returned false-positive HIV tests during vaccine trials. While the vaccine will no longer be pursued for coronavirus, the ‘molecular clamp’ technology that has been patented by UQ researchers has shown promising results when used to target influenza, Ebola and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome.

Elsewhere, potential vaccines have progressed through preliminary trials and safety regulations, with many countries fast-tracking the approval process. The UK, Russia and China have all begun mass vaccination programs, while the US has recently begun vaccinating high risk healthcare workers and nursing home patients with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Pfizer claims its initial vaccine trials had a 90% efficacy rate, while fellow US drug manufacturer Moderna announced its trials had proven its vaccine to be 94.5% effective. More recently, an announcement from a partnership between Oxford University and AstraZeneca has claimed its third phase of trials has proven its vaccine is 70.4% effective in preventing COVID-19. Despite it having a lower efficacy rate than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines at this stage of testing, Health Minister Greg Hunt has said that these vaccine results have opened up a pathway to a “fully safe Australia.”

Australians who have been affected all year by the pandemic – with record job losses, reliance on government support to pay the bills, health scares, the loss of loved ones and sinking savings rates – may be pinning their hopes on a vaccine to restore things to normal.

A vaccine that protects people against the deadly COVID-19 virus could help the economy and Australian life get well and truly back on track, according to one expert. Here’s how.

Will a vaccine help the Australian economy return to normal?

Canstar spoke with AMP Capital Senior Economist Diana Mousina after the release of the initial Pfizer results about how a vaccine could help our economy.

Diana Mousina AMP Capital Senior Economist

She said a potential vaccine could restore our activity and mobility back to normal as society reopens, which would help struggling industries – such as tourism, airlines, transport, hospitality and retail – get back to operating closer to their pre-pandemic levels.

“The sooner we restore our activity back to normal, the sooner the economy can regain some of its spare capacity,” Ms Mousina said.

‘Spare capacity’, in econo-speak, refers to the extent to which industries and the economy are operating below what they usually would.

The economist said jobs fit into this picture as well, because the industries that are suffering the most are those that have had to lay off staff or reduce employees’ hours.

“As soon as the recovery can get back to its pre-COVID levels, or GDP growth can get back to its pre-COVID levels, then the better it will be for the employment market,” she said.

If people are able to go back to work, Ms Mousina said it could also mean there may not be as much need for programs like the loan deferral schemes from the banks, or government support payments such as JobKeeper and JobSeeker.

The economist is expecting GDP growth at the end of this year to still be around 3% below its pre-COVID-19 level, but that could be revised if we see a vaccine sooner than expected.

How long until we return to ‘normal’?

Ms Mousina said Australia was in a unique situation with our handling of the virus, in that it’s possible we may see a situation in about 12 months’ time where we are free of COVID-19 but still have international border closures.

In this case, she said activity would still not really be back to the ‘normal’ we know, due to the industries that would still be impacted by international border closures, without any international tourists or students arriving.

She said the timeline for a return to normal would ultimately depend on who gets the vaccine and when.

“It depends on what proportion of the population gets the vaccine and at what stage,” Ms Mousina said.

“The first round of people that will get it will be vulnerable groups, healthcare workers, workers in frontline facilities – it’s not going to be the whole population. And of course there’ll be people who don’t want to take the vaccine either.

“So it will definitely take a few months, even once the vaccine is available.”

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, along with the Pfizer vaccine, is one of three COVID-19 vaccines that the Australian Government has secured. The Government has committed to purcasing 53.8 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Of those, 3.8 million will be imported from overseas manufacturing plants, while the remaining 50 million doses will be manufactured locally by Melbourne-based firm CSL.

The Australian Government has also arranged for 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to arrive in 2021, if it passes the necessary safety and effectiveness tests,. But with each person needing two doses, it’s been reported the initial batch would cover only 5 million people, or about one in five Australians (Australia’s population is around 25 million people). While the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been given emergency approval in both the US and the UK, the Australian Government has consistently stated that vaccinations in Australia will begin in March at the earliest.

The Australian Government has not secured any Moderna vaccines directly at this stage, but it’s possible the vaccine could enter the country via the COVAX Facility, a global vaccine initiative whereby participating countries will be able to purchase COVID-19 vaccines if and when they become available.

What is the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine?

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is a COVID-19 vaccine candidate developed through a partnership between Oxford University and global biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. It is the most recent vaccine to report successful interim trial data, with a 70.4% efficacy rate across two different dosing regimes. The first, which gave trial participants two standard doses of the vaccine, had a reported 62% efficacy rate, while the second, which gave participants a half-dose first, had a recorded 90% rate.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is an adenovirus vaccine, which means it is a weakened version of the common cold virus that is modified so that it cannot grow in humans. It can also be easily manufactured, stored and transported at domestic fridge temperatures of around 2 to 8 degrees Celsius. According to a press release from Oxford University, this will mean the vaccine can be distributed rapidly through existing facilities such as pharmacies and doctor’s surgeries if it is approved.

This, along with the fact that the vaccine is reportedly cheaper per person than the Pfizer and Moderna candidates, has sparked widespread optimism about the vaccine.

What is the Pfizer vaccine?

The Pfizer vaccine is a preventative measure against COVID-19 which American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and German company BioNTech are developing in the United States. In November, 2020, the two drug companies announced interim trial results, which showed the vaccine candidate was “more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19” in people who had not previously been infected with the virus. The vaccine’s technical name is ‘BNT162b2’, and requires two doses per person to be effective.

It is just one of several vaccine candidates, including the Novavax vaccine which is currently in testing and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, that the Australian Government has signed agreements to purchase millions of doses of once they are available.

What is the Moderna Vaccine?

The Moderna vaccine is manufactured by Moderna as part of the US Government’s Operation Warp Speed program. Unlike the Oxford-AstraZeneca contender, it and the Pfizer vaccine are both messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. It is based on new technology which encourages the body to detect the genetic material and protein of the virus as foreign, so that it builds an immune response. Unlike traditional vaccines which contain traces of the actual virus, mRNA viruses carry ‘instructions’ to the body, helping it produce antibodies that essentially ‘remember’ how to fight the virus. They are also easier to manufacture on a large scale than many traditional vaccines, although not necessarily compared to adenovirus vaccines like the Oxford-AstraZeneca one.

Data released by the company has shown that the Moderna ‘mRNA-1273’ vaccine successfully prevented the COVID-19 infection in 94.5% of the trial participants.

Similarly to the Pfizer vaccine, the Moderna vaccine is administered in two doses, 28 days apart. One attractive difference is that it can be stored at normal fridge temperatures of around 2 to 8 degrees Celsius. This means that the vaccine may be easier to distribute than the Pfizer candidate, which must be shipped and stored below -70 degrees Celsius. On the other hand, a single dose of the Moderna vaccine contains more mRNA than the Pfizer vaccine, meaning that it is harder to manufacture.

When will the vaccines be available in Australia and who will get them?

The Australian Government has committed to buying 53.8 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the first 3.8 million of which are reported to be available to healthcare workers and the elderly by March 2021 if the vaccine is ready by then. It has also secured a deal with Pfizer for 10 million doses of its vaccine in 2021, if it’s proven that the vaccines are safe, effective and approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). According to the Minister for Health Greg Hunt, it is likely that the different vaccines, including those that have been secured but are still undergoing trial, will be used in different circumstances as Australia will have enough to vaccinate the population “three times over”.

First priority will be given to those who are at increased risk of contracting and spreading the virus, those who have an increased risk of developing severe cases of it and those working in services critical to our society functioning, according to the Department of Health. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Mr Hunt said key vaccination sites “will initially include GPs, GP respiratory clinics, state and territory vaccination sites and workplaces such as aged care facilities”.

The vaccines will not be mandatory in Australia, but the government wants as many Australians as possible to choose to be vaccinated for COVID-19.

One of the difficulties in getting the Pfizer vaccine to Australia is that it needs to be stored below -70 degrees Celsius, but TGA head John Skerritt said the vaccine vials would be stored in carriers for transport, which he referred to as “very sophisticated eskies” that require dry ice. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, on the other hand, can be stored and distributed between temperatures of 2 and 8 degrees Celsius, roughly the same as a standard domestic fridge.

More information about the vaccine plan can be found on the Department of Health’s COVID-19 Vaccine and Treatment strategy website.

As for the Moderna vaccine, the company expects to produce approximately 20 million doses of the vaccine for the US this year, and then between 500 million and 1 billion doses across all of its US and international manufacturing sites in 2021, provided the vaccine passes the required safety regulations in the coming weeks. As the Australian Government has not secured any Moderna vaccines directly at this stage, it is not certain when the vaccine will be available in Australia, however it may enter the country via the COVAX Facility.

Is the vaccine free?

According to the Australian Government, a COVID-19 vaccine will be free for those who choose to be vaccinated.

The government has paid more than $3.3 billion to secure a total of four vaccine agreements, but they are all subject to the vaccines being registered as safe and effective by the TGA.

Interestingly, health insurers such as AAMI and nib have said they will cover the costs of a COVID-19 vaccine or “medicines” once developed, if your health insurance extras cover includes Pharmaceutical Prescriptions and the vaccine or other medicine is prescribed by a licensed medical practitioner.

Does the vaccine have any side effects?

According to Virologist Adam Taylor, early clinical trials showed the Pfizer vaccine was “generally safe with no serious side-effects” and produced a “robust immune response” after the two doses required. The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has also reported that no serious safety events related to the vaccine have occurred during the trial.

But the results of the vaccine trial have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, so the full details about what the actual results are and the extent of any side effects are not yet known.

The Moderna vaccine reported no serious side effects, aside from some reports of pain at the injection site, fatigue, headaches and muscle or joint pain, all of which are generally common side effects of vaccines.

The Australian Government has stressed a vaccine will only be distributed if proven to be “safe and effective”.

Additional reporting by Eliza Parry-Okeden.

→ Stay up to date with the latest information about COVID-19 at the Department of Health

This article was originally published on 13 November, 2020 and has been updated.

This article was reviewed by our Sub Editor Tom Letts before it was published as part of our fact-checking process.

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