The COVID-19 global pandemic that started in late 2019 has changed the everyday lives of most, if not all, people. Australia’s first positive case of the virus was confirmed in January of 2020, and by March, lockdown measures were put in place to try and contain the virus. Soon after, the borders closed to all non-residents. Different states in Australia implemented different lockdown measures, as each state had different positive and active cases that were unpredictable. Victoria, in particular, was in lockdown for 112 days in total with only a few weeks break in between the first and second waves.
The lockdown introduced unprecedented alternatives to many everyday activities such as school and work. Schools and universities shut down, forcing students to switch to online learning and non-essential jobs were also converted into work from home. This may have caused additional trouble to parents who had to work from home but also needed to assist the children for school, as they were restricted from all nanny services. Many people had to temporarily stop working. This ranged from those working in construction that were let go due to the reduction of workers needed, to those working as an in-home child carer as it became restricted for non-family members to enter the household. Many workers were even laid off and small businesses closed permanently. For those working in essential jobs, workers had to take precautionary methods such as wearing masks. Especially for those in healthcare or aged care facilities, precautionary measures increased as to not infect the patients or residents. Infection control procedures and measures in hospitals became even more important to ensure the safety of everyone. Staff underwent COVID-19 infection control training in addition to normal training such as fall prevention training courses. Additional measures, such as obtaining extra equipment including ventilators and air compressors for ventilation, were also essential. Ensuring that air compressors are serviced, PPE equipment is adequate and medical equipment is up to date are all crucial elements in fighting against the virus.
Positive and active cases in each Australian state have ranged at different stages of the pandemic. Even if most of the states have low cases, it is uncertain when the next outbreak could be. As the pandemic has showed no signs of disappearing, a vaccine for COVID-19 is the only way to get things back to normal as soon as possible. Vaccines work by mimicking the virus so the body can fight it. It trains the body to build an immune response so that it can know how to fight against the real disease.
On December 8, 2020, the UK became the first country to start administering fully trialed and tested COVID-19 vaccines to its citizens, only a year after the pandemic started. Although the quick introduction of the vaccine is great news, it came with fears from some people as to how it was created so quickly and if it is safe. It takes 10 years on average for a vaccine to be developed, with the fastest being the mumps vaccine which took 4 years, so the uncertainty from the population was no surprise. However, there are many reasons for the swiftness of the COVID-19 vaccine which include:
- Funding- the research for vaccines is very costly and money can be difficult to secure. However, with money being given by governments, private sectors and other organisations and funding bodies, the funding for the research was immediate and considerable. This made it possible for clinical trials to be set in motion quickly.
- Quick trials- the testing process takes a significant amount of time in the vaccine development as it has many stages. The first step is to test the vaccine in labs, before being tested if it’s safe with animals, then finally, the human trials. The human trials are split into 3 phases to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. Due to the COVID-19 vaccine being prioritised along with many volunteers for the trials, this took months to years off the vaccine creation process, without compromising safety as it also underwent the same testing processes as other vaccines.
- Previous coronavirus research- although COVID-19 is a new type of virus, the coronavirus has been around for decades, with research having been made for as far back as 50 years. Coronavirus is also associated with the SARS epidemic of 2002 and the MERS outbreak of 2012. This means that there’s already groundwork for the research into COVID-19, speeding up the process of creating a vaccine against the virus.
- Research for Preparation- in addition to previous research on coronavirus, there’s also already existing vaccine technologies that have been years in the making and can quickly be adapted to new threats. This means that all that’s needed is the genetic sequence of the virus to modify the vaccine before trials are set in motion.
Vaccines in Australia
Australia has entered agreements to secure four different types of vaccines, although only two are currently available in Australia. These two are the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is a viral vector vaccine. This vaccine is made by taking a weak or inactive virus and inserting it with harmless genetic material from the COVID-19 virus, which means that it won’t cause COVID-19 when inserted into the body. Instead, once it is inside human cells, the modified virus or vector delivers a genetic code to the cells to make proteins that are found on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. This then triggers our immune system to fight it off and develop an immune response. This means that if the body is infected with the real COVID-19 virus, the system will remember how to activate the immune response.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, on the other hand, is an mRNA-based vaccine. This vaccine works similarly but instead of using a weak or inactive virus, it uses genetically engineered messenger RNA to deliver genetic codes to the cells to make the proteins found on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. This also then triggers the immune system to fight against it and develop an immune response so that when the real virus enters the body, the system will know how to attack.
With these options available, Australia started administering vaccines in February. The rollout will be divided into several phases which are phase 1a, phase 1b, phase 2a, phase 2b, and phase 3. Those in phase 1a are quarantine and border workers, those working in frontline health care, and aged care and disability staff and residents. Phase 1b includes the elderly who are 70 and older, aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 55 or older, adults with underlying medical conditions, other health care workers, and critical or high-risk workers such as those in police, defence, fire department, or emergency services. Those included in phase 2b are the elderly aged 50 or older, aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders aged 18 or older, and other critical or high-risk workers. Phase 2b are the rest of the adult population, and phase 3 are under 18’s if recommended.
The Morrison Government aims to have the first of two doses administered to all eligible Australians by the end of the year. There are no specific dates set for each phase as the vaccines have only been recently made. The unprecedented nature of the pandemic means there may be unpredicted setbacks that could push back the date. It may take many years for the country to return to its pre-COVID state, but these vaccinations are the first step in trying to ensure that the virus is curbed as much as possible until it disappears completely.