Academy statement on pandemic, vaccines and misinformation

Academy President Professor John Shine

This week we’ve seen significant misunderstandings and differing views regarding the effectiveness of first-generation COVID-19 vaccines. It is crucial that the distinction be made between a vaccine’s effectiveness at protecting from severe disease versus its effectiveness at stopping transmission.

Australia’s current vaccination strategy is aimed at reducing the severity of disease – put simply, to reduce the number of exposed individuals getting very sick or dying.

Australia has become a pandemic success story. The majority of individual Australians’ willingness to follow public health directions, and a laudable commitment from governments to listen to experts and allow science to guide policy, has been mostly responsible for this success.

Australians can be confident that vaccines approved for use by the Therapeutic Goods Administration will be safe and effective at reducing the risk of developing severe COVID-19.

Australia is in a fortunate position as we are not facing the COVID-19 transmission rates currently experienced by the USA, the UK, European countries, and others worldwide. Our hospitals are not operating at capacity, and death and community transmission rates of COVID-19 are low.

Australia is not experiencing conditions that would require vaccination rollout via emergency use authorisation. As such, our nation will benefit from growing data on vaccine dose and effectiveness as they are implemented in countries with the greatest need.

Vaccinated individuals will be protected from the worst of COVID-19 but will not be protected from becoming infected. None of the vaccines that have been approved for use have demonstrated that they can stop transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) – conclusive data is not available yet.

Importantly, in preventing severe COVID-19 that requires hospitalisation, both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines are equally effective. Accordingly, the Academy supports the current Australian Government vaccination strategy, informed by the best available expertise and science.

Public confusion has arisen around the implications of 62% or 95% effectiveness of first-generation COVID-19 vaccines. These figures represent the AstraZeneca AZD1222 and Pfizer BioNTech BTB162b vaccines’ respective effectiveness rates at protecting an infected person from developing mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms.

Either vaccine is amply effective to prevent severe disease – the outcome we all fear most and the primary goal of Australia’s vaccination strategy.

The approval and deployment of COVID-19 vaccines alone will not bring an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, public health measures such as practising good hygiene, high levels of testing, contact tracing and physical distancing must continue in 2021.

Australians should get vaccinated. Administering first-generation vaccines will be critical to reducing the number of people infected with COVID-19 who then progress to hospitalisation, intensive care or death. It will allow us to avoid a major wave of illness like that currently being experienced in the northern hemisphere.

Lifting public health measures will only be possible following further research, adequate worldwide vaccination and the control of spread at an international level. In this context, the Australian Government’s commitment to the World Health Organization, COVAX and supporting our Pacific and South-East Asian neighbours to obtain access to vaccines is highly commendable.

Australians are looking for trustworthy information and answers about COVID-19 and vaccination. With much misinformation in the public domain, we urge Australians to continue to consult reputable sources of evidence-based information such as Commonwealth and State Departments of Health, our Chief Medical Officers, the Australian Academy of Science, as well as our other Learned Academies such as the Australian Academy for Health and Medical Sciences.

In this context, Australians with questions about vaccines are encouraged to consult Academy resources, including our COVID-19 Hub, and the Science of Immunisation, which is currently being updated.

Australians can be reassured that the current Australian Government vaccination strategy is informed by experts and the best available science. Only science will solve this.

Professor John Shine AC FRS PresAA

President

Australian Academy of Science

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