Our vaccine ‘plane crash’ and the 7 reasons it happened

a man wearing glasses: (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett) © Provided by Crikey (Image: AAP/Joel Carrett)

Malcolm Gladwell observed that in your average plane crash, seven distinct human errors usually occur. Planes don’t crash because a pilot falls asleep or presses one wrong button, but a series of calamities, each usually avoidable, combine to cause a tragedy. The same can be said for the disaster that has been Australia’s vaccine rollout.

Already a debacle, by 7.15pm last night it was a full-blown plane crash. Somehow, one of the richest countries in the world, home to CSL, one of the largest global biotechnology manufacturers, looks set to be slower than many developing nations in vaccinating its population.

The errors have been caused by a combination of hubris, garden-variety incompetence and an unfounded paranoia about vaccine hesitation.

7 distinct errors

Mistake one was taking far too long to sign agreements with pharmaceutical businesses. Australia took several months longer than countries like the US, UK and Israel to actually purchase the vaccines.

Mistake two was failing to diversify the vaccine supply. No vaccines were ever ordered from Moderna or Johnson & Johnson (nor the Chinese Sinopec or Russian Sputnik — albeit more understandably). Ten million doses were ordered from Pfizer (later upped to 20 million), and then the government was relying on AstraZeneca, the delayed Europe-produced Novavax and the University of Queensland’s vaccine.

Mistake three was the Morrison government’s abrupt cancellation of UQ’s vaccine. This decision got minimal publicity at the time — largely because the government very quickly said CSL would switch production to AstraZeneca. However, the cancellation concentrated supply risk onto only three producers (the impact of that becoming obvious last night).

The thing is, there was nothing actually wrong with the vaccine’s efficacy (that had been noted anyway) — the issue was participants in the vaccine’s phase one trials had returned “false positive” HIV tests. The vaccine, a molecular clamp, was formulated using HIV proteins. The government, presumably fearing public backlash, were very quick to dump this vaccine.

At the time, the decision appeared strange — now it appears utterly idiotic. About 800 people contract HIV in Australia each year, a tiny number. Presumably, rather than completely dump the UQ vaccine, other measures could have been taken to handle the rather minor false-positive issue. But instead, the government switched to AstraZeneca.

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Our vaccine ‘plane crash’ and the 7 reasons it happened