SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s national cabinet will begin meeting twice a week starting Monday to help mobilize the country’s battle against COVID-19 as authorities consider mass vaccinations to increase coronavirus inoculation efforts.
Federal and state governments will discuss setting up mass vaccination centers from early June for people over 50, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday, when the country will move to the next phase of immunization.
“We will have the AstraZeneca vaccine which we believe can increase the speed of vaccination for those aged between 50 and 70 years. That’s millions of Australians,” Morrison told reporters in Perth.
Australia earlier this week abandoned a target of providing at least one dose of vaccine to nearly 26 million residents by year-end after limiting the rollout of the preferred AstraZeneca vaccine to people under 50 due to clotting problems.
The European drug regulator’s findings regarding rare cases of blood clotting among some adult recipients of the AstraZeneca vaccine are a major blow to Australia as the country bases its immunization drive largely on this inoculation, with plans to produce 50 million doses locally.
Australian officials overhauled the program in response, doubling Pfizer’s previous orders to 40 million shots, which will be delivered by the end of the year, mostly for the adult population under 50.
Australia formed a national cabinet of federal, state and territory leaders early last year to coordinate steps to fight the pandemic.
Morrison said a return to more frequent national cabinet meetings was needed to address the “serious challenges” caused by uneven international vaccine supplies and changing medical advice.
The return to the twice-weekly meetings, the same frequency as at the height of the crisis in Australia last year, will continue for “the foreseeable future”, Morrison said.
Australia fared much better than many other developed countries during the pandemic, with more than 29,400 cases of COVID-19 and 910 deaths.
No new cases have been reported nearly every day this year and officials are quickly tackling small outbreaks, but the country’s vaccination program has met major obstacles.
About 1.3 million people have been vaccinated by Tuesday, far from the 4 million promised at the end of March, after the European Union blocked exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine after the drugmaker failed to fulfill promises of delivery to the block.
Trade Minister Dan Tehan will travel to Europe this week to seek the release of about 3 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine previously promised for Australia.
Reporting by Renju Jose; editing by Jane Wardell and Michael Perry