Opinion

Rachel Smalley: Let's not do lockdown again

OPINION

Free masks and more rats, plus anti-virals for around 400,000 people and we’re being encouraged to test and isolate. That’s the government’s response to the nasty little COVID wave that we’ve found ourselves in. 

It's a short-term, temporary solution. It’s reactionary, and that’s okay because how else can you be when you have a mutating virus in the midst of a global pandemic. You just need to respond, and quickly.

However, the variants will keep coming. They will keep popping up and the transmission of the virus, as we know, is fast and it's getting faster. It's getting more efficient at jumping across a community and a population. 

So what do we do? Well, we should take a lead from the Australians. they're moving faster than we are. Last week, Australia granted ‘provisional determination’ to two vaccines that specifically target the omicron variant and some of its offshoots.

'Provisional determination' is a fancy way of saying they’re getting some of the paperwork done so that when the new omicron-specific vaccine drops – and the Americans are likely to start introducing the vaccine to the public in the fall, so anywhere from September onwards - Australia wants to be walking that same path and be ready to roll too. 

The Australian Government has responded because of the rising number of cases of omicron, and the increasing number of hospitalisations and deaths. The same situation is playing out here, as you know. 

The existing vaccine is still effective, but the Australians acknowledge it's a lot less effective at stopping transmission and symptoms.

So, what have they done? 

There’s a group in Australia called ATAGI – it stands for the 'Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisations' and they met last week to consider whether they should be rolling out a fourth booster in Australia. That group of experts says three doses are really effective at preventing severe disease and death in healthy people, and the fact that many healthy people have also had omicron, they're questioning whether a fourth dose is of any real use to the wider population. 

They do say it is important for the most vulnerable among us to get that fourth booster -- and that includes the elderly and the under-vaccinated. 

But ATAGI is looking at whether the wider population in Australia may be better placed to wait for the new targeted booster -  the omicron-specific booster -- and that's why, in the meantime, they've granted this 'provisional' determination to two of the omicron vaccines, one of which has been developed by Pfizer. 

These vaccines have been travelling through clinical trials, and Australia is now engaged with those pharmaceutical companies because Canberra has rubber-stamped those vaccines through the first phase of registration. Those pharma companies now have to communicate the efficacy and safety of those vaccines. 

On a whim, I checked in with Medsafe here last night. Were we looking at any form of provisional approval for an omicron-specific vaccines and it appears that is underway at the moment. 

I also watched the hour-long media conference yesterday on our response to COVID, and nothing was mentioned there by the Minister. I'm sure if we ask the Government they will tell us they're engaged with Pfizer on this -- but if so, I'm not sure why they haven't told us. 

The Australian public is kept well informed of what the government's up to. It's in the public domain that they're really focused on procuring the omicron-specific vaccine. and so that worries me. we don't have a very good track record when it comes to being at the front of the queue for vaccines, do we? 

And when we missed the boat on getting early access to the vaccine with the alpha variant of the virus, it massively impacted our economy -- we stayed in lockdown for months. Talk to hospo, talk to businesses, talk to almost anyone outside of the government and its various ministries, and we know how much it impacted all of us and our families, and our businesses and livelihoods. 

Let’s not do that again. I'm a little anxious that no one in Government is talking about the next vaccine, and the rest of the world is. 

Sometimes, we like to live in a silo at the bottom of the world, and we pride ourselves on being "the plucky little nation that could",  but we need to be a little less cocky, a little less arrogant.

If we put our political pride to one side and cast an eye across the Tasman, we could learn a lot from our big sibling over there and follow their lead.