The mammoth effort of safely distributing tens of millions of Covid-19 vaccine doses to all Australians is a step closer to reality after the Federal Government inked several deals to operate and monitor the national vaccine network.
Under new contracts, logistics firms DHL and Linfox will work with the Department of Health to vaccinate people across Australia, while digital security firm Accenture will then track vaccine doses and monitor any adverse effects.
Audit and accounting firm PwC has also partnered with the Department of Health to help roll out the Covid-19 programme.
The scheme is due to begin in March next year, with all Australian citizens, permanent residents, and most visa-holders being promised a free jab.
The Federal Government has secured agreements for the supply of three Covid-19 vaccines: from Pfizer, Novavax and Oxford University-AstraZeneca, but of those, Pfizer’s vaccine will be the hardest to distribute.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said he did not want to set any expectations that a vaccine would be rolled out earlier than March, even though the process is currently “ahead of schedule”.
“Our goal is to make sure that ever thing’s in line for a safe, effective distribution beginning in March, we always aim to under-promise and over-deliver, but March is our national guideline and expectation,” he said.
Pfizer vaccine will require ultra-cold ‘eskies’
The government has opted to buy 10 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine – enough to vaccinate 5m people – from overseas in the event it receives approval by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, rather than produce it in Australia.
That is because the Pfizer vaccine is based on new technology, which has never been successfully manufactured or distributed in Australia before.
The Pfizer vaccine has already received emergency use approval by health authorities in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Mexico and the European Union.
The virus that causes Covid-19 enters healthy cells using the so-called “spike” protein and many vaccines inject an amount of that protein so the body can produce antibodies and learn to fight the coronavirus.
Pfizer’s vaccine however contains genetic material called mRNA, which effectively comes with a DIY kit – instructions to assemble the spike protein, so the body can mount an immune response.
The Pfizer vaccine was shown to be 95 percent effective in preventing the disease in a late-stage trial, but it comes with complex logistical challenges.
The vaccine must be shipped and stored at -70C, requiring specialised ultra-cold “eskies” stocked with dry ice.
Under the new agreement, DHL and Linfox will be required to track and report the temperature of the successful vaccine at all times.
They will also be responsible for transporting the vaccines from manufacturers to vaccination administration sites – even in very remote areas.
Accenture will then design, develop, and implement software to enable “point in time” visibility of Covid-19 vaccine doses across the delivery chain.
That will allow those with access to the system to see which health services have received the vaccine, who has had the jab, and whether any adverse reactions have been recorded.
Experts have described the logistics challenge as unprecedented, saying Australia has not faced such a mammoth distribution task since WWII.
The government is expecting to vaccinate the entire Australian population within 2021.