Does the vaccine roll out add up?

The COVID-19 vaccine is just around the corner and the race to get the Australian population vaccinated has given everyone a new sense of optimism – especially the Prime Minister.

Last week, during a press conference announcing the planned rollout of vaccines, PM Scott Morrison said that as early as mid-February: “We would hope to start with around 80,000 vaccinations a week and then seeing that build up over the next four to six weeks [so] by the end of March to have reached four million [people].”

Wait. What?

A quick calculation of 80,000 jabs per week over 4–6 weeks only covers 320,000–480,000 people. Where did the figure of four million come from?

Multiplying the confusion, these numbers don’t measure actual vaccinations. Many COVID-19 vaccines being developed require two separate doses administered at least two weeks apart. Getting four million people properly vaccinated is actually going to take eight million doses. This would set an even higher target to reach before the end of March. 

Thankfully Brendan Murphy, who has led Australia’s COVID-19 response, was there to explain the PM’s numerically excited introduction. The plan is for two vaccines to be rolled out before the end of March that will each have different targets and distributions plans.

Cool. Let’s look at these vaccines separately.

The first vaccine to be administered will come from Pfizer – it’s the one that’s been widely reported as needing to be kept at -70°C at all times before use. The government announced it will deal with this tricky requirement by establishing 30–40 dedicated hubs to administer doses to those Australians at greatest risk. This means the first week of 80,000 doses will concentrate on aged- and disability-care patients and frontline workers via these dedicated outlets. 

So let’s crunch the numbers for just that first week

The best-case scenario has the government setting up 40 hubs which would each need to distribute 2000 doses by the end of the week to hit the target. If it takes a staff member an average of 15 minutes to test, prepare, and administer a vaccine then at least 500 work hours would be needed for each hub just to administer doses.

This doesn’t factor in any supply delays or staffing problems or complications with vulnerable patients – not to mention the ongoing risk of frontline healthcare workers being infected with COVID-19. It’s a very ambitious plan that needs a lot of things to go right for it work.

The second vaccine is a result of the joint work between Oxford University and AstraZeneca; it will be imported from Europe to start with. This vaccine is much more stable at higher temperatures and it won’t need an ultra-cold supply chain for its distribution. Great! But just how many doses will need to be administered before the end of March to hit the four million target?

If we assume that the Pfizer vaccine is still going to deliver 80,000 doses a week then the AstraZeneca vaccine only needs to pick up the slack and administer 3.5 million over five weeks. That sounds like a lot. But the government has a plan.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said there will be “over 1000 locations around Australia” to administer the AstraZeneca vaccine. This means on average each location will need to deliver 3500 doses over five weeks. While that reduces to a measly 700 doses per week this again is only an average. The reality could be a lot more difficult to manage.

If distribution of the vaccine was to “ramp up” over the five-week period, as described by Murphy, then we could expect a smaller number of doses to start with that would increase steadily week on week. This could mean each location starting with only 200 doses in the first week and ending with a whopping 1200 by the final week.

While this is less than weekly requirement for the Pfizer vaccine hubs, these thousands of AstraZeneca shots will likely be administered in GP clinics and pharmacies. Can you imagine the lines of people waiting hours for their COVID-19 shots? If social distancing means keeping at least 2 metres between each person, just how would your local GP or chemist cope with long snaking queues outside their doors?

While some of this number-crunching might seem a tad pedantic, it was the PM who asserted last Wednesday that “we don’t want to make promises we can’t keep”.

Promising four million doses over just six weeks means putting a huge amount of pressure on an untested system. Since public confidence in the vaccine is critical to its success, perhaps some greater clarity on the numbers would make us numerical folk a bit more comfortable.

Related reading: COVID booster: vaccine news and game theory

Please login to favourite this article.