Every Australian could receive a free coronavirus vaccination early next year if a promising trial proves successful.
The government has signed a letter of intent with British drug company AstraZeneca, which is working with Oxford University on a coronavirus vaccine trial.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he is “hopeful but also naturally cautious” the drug being tested will be safe and effective.
He expects it could be rolled out early next year.
“If we can get it done earlier than that, we will,” Mr Morrison said on Wednesday.
“We are not putting everything in the AstraZeneca basket but it is one of the most advanced and the most likely, based on the expert advice we have,.”
Mr Morrison believes two-thirds of Australians would need to be vaccinated for a national immunisation program to be effective.
But the prime minister wants about 95 per cent of people to take the jab.
He has not made a decision on whether the vaccine will be mandatory but says the response needs to be “extensive and comprehensive”.
There will initially be a voluntary call for vaccinations, with health workers to be a priority.
Mr Morrison says the government will consider campaigns to encourage take-up of the vaccine such as “no jab, no play”.
“I’m open to all options to ensure we get the strongest possible take-up,” he said.
Mr Morrison is mindful of anti-vaxxers who may try to refuse the treatment.
“You have to do it for yourself, your family and for your fellow Australians.”
Under the deal, Australia would make and supply the vaccine and provide it free to all Australians.
The letter of intent, a needle and syringe contract with Becton Dickinson, are the first announcements under a national COVID-19 vaccine and treatment strategy.
The cost of the deal is commercial-in-confidence but Mr Morrison says Australia’s chequebook is open.
“We all know the cost of this, frankly, is not my primary consideration,” he said.
“It’s the cost of it not being present now that is devastating our economy and jobs across the country.”
Labor’s health spokesman Chris Bowen is worried there’s no proper deal yet, and that a viable vaccine is still some time away.
Mr Morrison admitted there was no guarantee the vaccine would be successful, so the government was continuing talks with other parties as well as backing Australian researchers.
The Oxford University trials are under way in the UK, Brazil and South Africa and are due to soon start in the US, running into early 2021.
But Australian medical advisers are aware of 167 vaccine candidates in pre-clinical and clinical trials, including 29 undergoing clinical trials in humans.
An expert group led by Health Department secretary Brendan Murphy is examining all options to ensure Australia doesn’t pin all of its hopes on one vaccine.