• Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine (EPA)Source: EPA
One of Australia's leading COVID-19 experts says there are a number of challenges standing in the way of regional and remote communities getting vaccinated - refrigeration, transportation and vaccine hesitation.
Rae Johnston

22 Dec 2020 - 11:29 AM  UPDATED 22 Dec 2020 - 11:29 AM

Several COVID-19 vaccines are currently either in development or already rolling out across the world. When and how they will reach rural and remote communities is a question that needs to be answered. 

Australia has secured 10 million doses of the 90+ percent effective Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine - enough for five million people.

The University of Queensland's Associate Professor Paul Griffin told NITV News while this vaccine is "really impressive", it comes with a significant downside. Storage and transportation at temperatures of minus 70 degrees celsius are needed for the vaccine to be effective.

"If they're not kept at really cold temperatures, they can essentially degrade and, and not work so well," said Associate Professor Griffin. "Obviously, this is going to pose some logistical challenges to rolling it out, particularly to more remote areas."

Associate Professor Griffin has been the principal investigator on more than 120 clinical trials, predominantly in vaccines. He believes the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could begin rollout in Australia as early as March. However, the solution for remote communities may lie in other vaccines that are not far behind.

The options

Expected only weeks after the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. It will still need colder temperatures for long term storage and transport. But standard refrigeration - as we use for most vaccines - is "adequate", according to Associate Professor Griffin.

In early 2021, Australia will have 53.8 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine - enough for 29 million people. 50 million doses will be manufactured in Australia.

The Novavax vaccine, on target for release in April, will have 51 million doses available in Australia during 2021, enough for 25.5 million people. It only needs "normal vaccine conditions", is "quite stable" and "fairly cheap as well", according to Associate Professor Griffin.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been identified as vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the first vaccines become available, there is a chance our communities will be prioritised. However, Associate Professor Griffin said it might be better to wait.

Maintaining the extreme cold needed to keep the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine safe while travelling to remote areas would be "really problematic,

"I think it's sort of an insurmountable challenge. I think if the Pfizer vaccine was the only one coming online, we could certainly do it. But I think we're getting the most stable vaccines coming through probably only a small number of weeks behind."

"We don't want to significantly delay access to the vaccine. But if we are getting those more stable [vaccines], that we can get out to those communities, obviously those challenges are going to be greatly reduced."

Vaccine hesitation

Despite being almost twice as likely to die from COVID-19, a recent study showed only 25 per cent of African-Americans are planning to be vaccinated. Concerns about safety, and an element of mistrust, were among the top reasons.

Associate Professor Griffin said Australia performs "exceptionally well" in terms of vaccine uptake. Still, there is a real need to address suspicions that may be present in the community.

"Vaccine hesitancy, unfortunately, is something that's growing and gaining momentum at the moment. I think mostly due to misinformation that's being shared about these vaccines."

One of the main concerns is how quickly the vaccine has been developed.

"A lot of people are a little bit concerned by the timing. But we have to remember, a lot of these vaccines are built on 10 or 20 years of vaccine research.

"I can reassure everybody that these vaccines have been tested as much as ever if not more, in fact, given the level of scrutiny that they're under. We've just managed to do it in the short timeline due to some amazing science and lots of generous funding. It has enabled us to omit a lot of redundant activities that we normally have to endure in these sort of trials."

Associate Professor Griffin said vaccine hesitancy can be challenging to address. Still, the correct information reaching people in a way that's appropriate for them - specifically addressing their concerns - is necessary to get as many people as possible vaccinated.

"If people refuse to get it, then we're going to be left in a situation just like we're seeing now for the foreseeable future. We're going to need everybody on board."

"The key thing to remember is that this vaccine isn't just about protecting you -  who you might infect."

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