First vaccinations expected in early March

Australia will be among the first countries to conditionally approve the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19, following a decision to bring forward the rollout to early March.

The Morrison government had previously set a target date of late March for the first vaccinations but has now received fresh advice early March is achievable.

“As data and regulatory guidance have been provided we have progressively been able to bring forward our provisional rollout from mid-year to the second quarter to late March and now early March,” a spokesman for Health Minister Greg Hunt told AAP on Wednesday.

“Our number one priority is safety. Public confidence in safety reduces vaccine hesitancy.”

He said comparable countries with strong records on dealing with the virus – such as New Zealand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan – are all on similar time frames for the rollout.

Pfizer is working with the Therapeutic Goods Administration, providing data for safety and efficacy as part of the approval process.

It is one of four vaccines the Australian government has purchased for a total projected supply of 134.8 million units.

The UK has been inoculating people with the Pfizer vaccine on an emergency basis for the past four weeks and on Monday became the first country in the world to start deploying the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is also subject to an order from Australia.

The Pfizer vaccine is harder to manage than the AstraZeneca jab because it must be stored and transported at minus 70 degrees Celsius, while the latter can be kept in a refrigerator.

Agreements are also in place with the COVAX and Novavax vaccine programs.

Meanwhile, one new locally acquired COVID-19 case has been diagnosed in Victoria, as return-to-work plans face scrutiny over the Black Rock cluster.

Victoria recorded three new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, with just one coming from a local source and the other two acquired overseas.

It takes the number of active cases in the state to 41.

Victoria Police have turned away 1532 motorists trying to cross the border, issuing 1232 warnings and 50 fines to people caught “checkpoint shopping” or using misleading permit applications.

In NSW a teenager’s summer camping trip has put several regional NSW communities on high alert after he tested positive for the coronavirus.

The 18-year-old visited the Berala BWS bottle shop in western Sydney, now the centre of a 15-strong COVID-19 cluster, on Christmas Eve.

He then travelled with friends to the regional NSW towns of Orange, Nyngan and Broken Hill – almost as far as the state’s western border.

The teen’s positive result came back on Tuesday. He’d first been alerted to the risk when he received an alert from NSW Health about his bottle shop visit and developed a sniffle.

NSW acting premier John Barilaro has ruled out a broader lockdown in Sydney’s west, but is due to meet with health advisers on Wednesday.

Overseas, the head of the World Health Organisation is disappointed Chinese officials haven’t finalised permissions for the arrival of a team of experts into China to examine origins of COVID-19.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in a rare critique of China, said members of the international scientific team began departing from their home countries over the last 24 hours as part of an arrangement between the WHO and the Chinese government.

“Today, we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalised the necessary permissions for the team’s arrival in China,” he told a news conference in Geneva.

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