Dr Nick Coatsworth has been forced to defend the Government’s coronavirus vaccination strategy on several fronts during a lively episode of Q+A.
- Dr Nick Coatsworth has defended Australia’s decision to use the AstraZeneca vaccine despite it having lower efficacy than some other COVID-19 vaccines
- The Australian Government was accused of not “levelling” with the Australian public over the vaccine
- Panellists said people should not be forced to take the vaccine
Australia’s top infectious disease advisor came under fire from Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah, associate director at the Monash Institute of Medical Engineering, who said Dr Coatsworth was “wrong” for suggesting there is debate about aerosol transmission.
“There is a live debate about the extent to which COVID-19 is transmitted via the aerosol route, via aerosols of COVID-19 that are inhaled,” Dr Coatsworth said after epidemiologist Tony Blakely had called for “federal guidance around aerosol and its impact in [hotel] quarantine”.
That comment came as the number of cases spawned by a nebuliser at Melbourne’s Holiday Inn grew to 13 on Thursday night.
Dr Ananda-Rajah disputed the claim about aerosol transmission, even though she agreed with Dr Coatsworth that hotel quarantine had worked “pretty well” in Australia.
“There’s no debate,” she said.
Asked by host Hamish Macdonald, “Nick Coatsworth’s wrong?”
The answer was a simple “yes”.
“I’m taking issue on it that it’s a debate,” Dr Ananda-Rajah said.
“If you don’t acknowledge that this is spread through the air, through a mixture of droplets as well as aerosols, you can’t really slice where a droplet, what a droplet is and what an aerosol is.
“If you can’t acknowledge it, you can’t prevent it.”
Dr Coatsworth then said he agreed there is an “element of airborne transmission”.
‘Australian public not being levelled with’
That incident was not the only time Dr Coatsworth and Dr Ananda-Rajah clashed during the show.
With new strains of coronavirus coming from the UK, Brazil and South Africa, the mutations of the virus have led to concerns about these new strains, which are reported to be more transmissible than the original version of COVID-19.
And there are also fears that these strains may be less likely to be vaccinated against by the current batch of vaccines.
So much so that South Africa paused its rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine amid fears it was less efficacious in treating the strain that is currently decimating the population there.
The World Health Organization have since endorsed the vaccine for use in any person over the age of 16.
Still, Dr Ananda-Rajah was not impressed and called on the Australian Government to be more transparent when it came to the AstraZeneca vaccine.
She said some of her own colleagues had doubts about receiving the AstraZeneca jab and wanted to receive the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine instead due to its higher efficacy.
“What I’m hearing from some of my colleagues is they’re asking me that they’d like the Pfizer vaccine,” she said.
“They understand there’s a difference between efficacy of 95 percent and an efficacy of 63 per cent.
“This speaks to the issue of Australia’s hybridised approach where 10 million adults will get a highly efficacious vaccine in Pfizer.
“The other 10 million will be getting a safe vaccine which is moderately efficacious in AstraZeneca.
“When I hear messaging that they’re highly effective vaccines, that is not correct.
“There is a highly effective vaccine in Moderna and Novavax and there are new ones here, and I think it needs to be conveyed to the Australian people.”
Asked by Macdonald if that was a fair criticism, Dr Coatsworth answered that critics should be cautious when they speak out against certain vaccines.
“I think what we’ve got to be very careful of … is diminishing the confidence in the program by misquoting the evidence about efficacy with the vaccine,” he said.
“That [AstraZeneca] is stopping you getting COVID-19 and stopping you getting severe disease, all of the vaccines stop you from getting severe disease.”
Asked by Dr Ananda-Rajah if Australia could pivot to Novavax, which she said has an 89 per cent efficacy rate in a clinical trial, Dr Coatsworth said it was a possibility and that would be the case with other vaccines in the future.
“We’ve got to come back to the objectives of this vaccination program and that is that we want to prevent severe disease and death,” he said.
“We want to stop our ICUs being overwhelmed [and] protect our most vulnerable people, and we can do it with the vaccines we’ve got.
“We will get Novavax and have access to other vaccines down the track.”
Anti-vaxxers cannot be forced to take shots
One of the major issues around the vaccine rollout in Australia will be whether people choose to take it.
And while Dr Coatsworth and Macdonald joked about the likelihood of celebrity chef Pete Evans — who has repeatedly cast doubt on official information about COVID-19 and vaccines — taking the vaccine, the panel were all aware some people who do not believe in vaccinations could not be forced to take the shots.
Professor Blakely said: “It’s inappropriate to vaccinate somebody against their will if they make that decision.
Infectious diseases expert Sharon Lewin agreed.
“I don’t think there’s a case of making it mandatory,” Dr Lewin said.
“I think what we need is really consistent, easy-to-understand information. So that people actually understand the benefits of the vaccine, the safety of the vaccine and what it can achieve if we achieve high uptake of the vaccine.”
Dr Ananda-Rajah did not say it should be mandatory but encouraged people to think hard before deciding to not get vaccinated.
“I think it’s normal to be hesitant about vaccination, particularly for adults,” she said.
“What I would say is that delaying vaccination or avoiding vaccination could come with a heavy cost.
“It could come with a heavy cost to you, to your inner circle, whoever that is, and to the wider community.”