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Australia must work to avoid ‘vaccine nationalism’, former top bureaucrat warns

“The urge for domestic priority, I think, will be very significant … We need to understand that if this virus is anywhere in the world and vulnerable people have not been protected, everyone is still vulnerable.”

The issue of global vaccine equity is on the agenda for discussion at the World Health Assembly meeting on Monday night, where federal health minister Greg Hunt was scheduled to represent Australia.

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While Australians were used to being able to “assume that vaccines are there when we need them”, Ms Halton said, “we don’t usually face a situation where a wanted vaccine is something that we just can’t get our hands on”.

“In this case, the whole world will want a vaccine – about eight billion people,” she said.

“We need to understand, as Australia, that it would not be the right thing if we produce 25 million doses for us first, and then said to the rest of the world – okay, now we’re good.”

If Australian scientists did not have success, she said, “someone else might, and we don’t want them to treat us like that”.

Vulnerable people such as health workers, the immuno-compromised and those with
“significant co-morbidities” should be prioritised both domestically and abroad, she said, including among neighbouring countries in the South Pacific region.

Ms Halton, who served as World Health Assembly president in 2007, said the issue would be part of a “long and difficult conversation” among developed nations and biotechnology and drug companies with capacity to mass produce a vaccine and would take some time to resolve.

Once promising vaccine candidates were identified, she said, they must receive “the full backing they need” as “if we had three or four viable vaccines, which we can produce all around the world, the risk of vaccine nationalism diminishes [and] the speed to access that vaccine increases.”

Ms Halton said she was optimistic that a vaccine would be found, noting that while 94 per cent of vaccine candidates failed, there were about 130 separate teams of scientists working on the project around the world, meaning “a reasonable chance” at least one would succeed.

Scientists had a head start on the hunt for a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, which causes the COVID-19 illness, thanks to previous work on the SARS and MERS coronaviruses, she said.

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