This month, the world has been keenly tuning into news of a potential breakthrough on a coronavirus vaccine by US drug giant Pfizer. The company claims its initial trials have found the vaccine it’s developing to be more than 90% effective in protecting people from the virus.
Fellow US drug manufacturer Moderna has also announced promising preliminary trials for its coronavirus vaccine, which it says proved to be 94.5% effective. It has been reported that Moderna may have enough safety data to gain US authorisation in the coming weeks.
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 about how a vaccine could help our economy.
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.”
At this stage, the Australian Government has arranged for 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to arrive in 2021 if it passes the 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).
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, which is a global vaccine initiative whereby participating countries will be able to purchase COVID-19 vaccines if and when they become available.
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. The two drug companies were the source of an optimistic breakthrough this month, when they announced interim trial results 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 the Australian Government is keeping an eye on. Others include the University of Queensland’s molecular clamp vaccine, the Novavax vaccine and the AstraZeneca vaccine. The Government has signed agreements to purchase millions of doses of each of these vaccines 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. It and the Pfizer vaccine are both messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, 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.
Data released by the company has shown that the Moderna ‘mRNA-1273’ vaccine successfully prevented the coronavirus 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 secured a deal with Pfizer for 10 million doses of its vaccine in 2021, if it’s proven to be a safe, quality and effective vaccine that is approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
Given each individual would require two doses, this initial shipment would only cover 5 million Australians.
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 disease and those working in services critical to our society functioning, according to the Department of Health. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Health Greg 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 vaccine 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 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.
More information about the vaccine plan can be found on the Department of Health’s COVID-19 Vaccine and Treatment strategy website.
Help slow the spread of COVID-19 by staying smart.
S – Stay at home if you feel sick
M – Wear a mask in areas with community transmission
A – Always practise good hygiene
R – Remember to check the COVIDSafe app is active
T – Get tested
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— Australian Government Department of Health (@healthgovau) November 5, 2020
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.
The positive results from both trials have improved the prospects of other mRNA vaccines which work in the same way that are still undergoing trial. According to New Scientist, Three other mRNA coronavirus vaccines are already in human trials which could mean that multiple effective vaccines may become available within the next year and help increase the global supply
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 $3.2 billion to secure a total of four vaccine agreements and over 134 million doses, 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.
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.