Is immunity just a mirage, on the far horizon?

Our stalled vaccination rollout has stripped the gloss from our successful virus suppression in 2020.

What a difference a few tiny wayward blood clots can make! Our preferred COVID-19 vaccine – the one we are making here – is effectively to be sidelined for everyone under 50, and our hopes for national immunity this year have been dashed.

Australia’s ability to deal with the vaccine setback is greatly strengthened by its achievement in keeping the coronavirus at bay, but the gloss from that triumph has been stripped away. As I write this, the wheels appear to have fallen off the national rollout.

The pandemic has taught the world pharmaceutical community a great deal about the virus over the year since governments began working out their vaccine orders. Even so, the UK-Swedish supplier AstraZeneca remains a valuable option despite its rare blood-clotting complications, discovered only since its mass rollout.

Even better was the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, a US-European collaborative effort. Like AstraZeneca, large numbers of doses can be produced quickly. But its biggest selling point is its use of recently-developed messenger RNA technology, a feature shared with vaccines from Moderna (US) and CureVac (Germany).

An mRNA vaccine uses a synthesised copy of natural ribonucleic acid (RNA) to induce immunity cells to identify and destroy the invading virus. It promises more rapid adaptability to new virus variants than more established technologies used in most vaccines now on offer.

A year ago, AstraZeneca and Pfizer were logical and defensible choices, but some things could have been done with more forethought. Pfizer, for instance, requires its vaccine to be stored at minus 79C, which should have raised questions about its suitability for places lacking that capacity in regional Australia and in undeveloped Pacific countries.

Putting our eggs in just two baskets (or three if you include Novavax, which if authorised is unlikely to land on our shores until late this year) was a risk that the US and the UK, with many more suppliers on their order list, effectively avoided.

The AstraZeneca blood-clotting issue has been badly handled. While expressing a preference for 50 as the minimum age for the jab, Australian authorities have not set a hard-and-fast rule. GPs and others administering it will probably decline to inject anyone under 50, which will further curtail the rollout.

The virus’s mutation rate makes rapid vaccination essential if we are to avoid many years of pandemic disruption. The UK, Canada and the US are way behind us in social suppression of the virus, but they’ve turned the tables in vaccines administered: 39 million first doses in the UK, 8 million in Canada and 183 million in the US. For us, just one million first jabs.

After the hugely successful effort in 2020 to suppress the vaccine, 2021 looks like being Australia’s year of lost opportunity. 

A crucial challenge for global suppression is the speed at which vaccines can be delivered into the arms of the people of poor countries. Rich countries like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Canada, the US, the EU and Britain hold just a seventh of the world’s people, but they have secured over half of the world’s current supply of vaccines.

Last year India and South Africa, seeking a rapid global vaccine rollout, proposed a temporary tweak to intellectual property rights that would allow ramped-up manufacture of cheaper generic versions of vaccines for rapid distribution to poorer countries.

That proposal has been supported by over 70 per cent of members of the World Trade Organisation, which would determine this one-off waiver of IP rights. Without the waiver, that big majority of countries won’t have enough vaccine coverage to secure immunity for enough of their population to render them safe for travel. 

Australia, which can afford to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies, is not one of those countries. Instead it is arguing for voluntary, non-enforceable agreements between would-be vaccine manufacturers and developers. It’s a halfway house that benefits no-one except the big pharmaceutical companies.

This is despite the fact that while all developers except (to its credit) AstraZeneca aim to profit from developing their vaccines, every one of them has received public grants, which by one reckoning add up to over $12 billion. Yet another instance of the pandemic driving private profit at public cost.

With viral variants proliferating, no-one is safe until everyone is safe. As a group of public health experts pointed out in The Conversation last week, that requires not just vaccines, but also a continuing global suppression effort, which is what we’re really good at. Australia may yet have something of value to offer a flagging world.

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Peter Gutwein’s concocted crisis

The premier has begun his Tasmanian election campaign with a breach of public trust.

We’ve seen it all before: premiers taking advantage of favourable times by calling an early election. Robin Gray took his Liberal government to the polls early, twice. Labor premiers Jim Bacon and Paul Lennon did the same.

Besides disrupting the legislative agenda, over the years early elections add to the budgetary burden. But this was how these men – they were all men back then – liked to play their politics. A snap election gets pulses racing and the element of surprise offers a head start in the campaign.

For all that, for the past three election cycles successive premiers David Bartlett, Lara Giddings (our first female leader) and Will Hodgman held to the agreed voluntary arrangement to serve the full term. But it seems Peter Gutwein is made of different stuff.

Most past early polls were a few months ahead of time, but in Gutwein’s case it’s a year. A fixed election would have been in early March next year, but he could have extended his term out to mid-May. He can do all this because unlike all other states, Tasmania has retained the premiers’ privilege of being able to determine a date.

Gutwein didn’t have complete open slather. He needed to advise Governor Kate Warner why Tasmania needed an election before it was due – “because Tasmania can’t afford the uncertainty of minority government” – and she had to accept that advice.

Therein lies a tale of some intrigue and more than a little contrivance.

The public part of the story began on Sunday 21 March with a call by the premier on the home of House speaker Sue Hickey, who offered him coffee. As he later put it, “I informed her that there is not support across the wider party for her to be endorsed as a Liberal candidate for the next election and that is a view I share.”

Hickey’s immediate response is not on the record – perhaps just as well since she was probably quite cross – but she said later that she had always supported the government in matters of confidence and budget supply, adding that the party seemed to be in the hands of “the men in dark suits” who did not accept women who refused to be subservient.

The next day Hickey proudly declared her true independence. But alert to the possibility that Gutwein might use that as the trigger for an election, she wrote to him and to the governor assuring them that she would not deny supply or support a no-confidence motion.

Five days after seeing Hickey the premier visited Government House and then announced the early poll. A few days later, responding to mounting speculation about the election trigger, he claimed that his government had been “plunged back into minority government”.

More intriguing is Gutwein’s deal with Madeleine Ogilvie, who was voted out in 2018 but returned to parliament on the redistributed vote of Labor’s Scott Bacon after he resigned the following year. Rejecting her former party, she sat as an independent.

Ogilvie’s switch to the Liberals became public the day after the premier announced the election. For Gutwein to imply that when he met the governor he could not have been confident of Ogilvie joining his party is disingenuous in the extreme.

Ogilvie’s version of events was that after the premier’s announcement that Hickey would not be on the Liberal ticket, she “had a range of conversations”, presumably at least some of them with Gutwein. She also pointedly disclosed that “I didn’t approach the government”. 

Ogilvie’s “range of conversations”, we can reasonably assume, didn’t happen overnight. The likeliest scenario is that a deal was stitched up well before the premier met the governor. I’d suggest Ogilvie’s party membership was in the mix even before the Hickey meeting.

The sensible conclusion from this is that while both the governor and the wider public were invited to think the premier and his government were victims of things beyond their control, in reality Gutwein and his staffers had stage-managed everything.

There was no crisis of confidence within parliament. There wasn’t even a minority government. With Ogilvie’s switched vote the Liberal majority was more secure than when the government was elected in 2018. 

Parliament is not the plaything of Peter Gutwein and his staffers. A government’s legitimacy is supposed to be determined by parliament’s lower house, not at the whim of a premier sniffing victory. Under other states’ election laws he would have been required to return to the parliament to test his majority.

That’s why we need fixed-term parliaments, and why Peter Gutwein owes voters a full explanation.

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Reality ignored in favour of spin and party games

Last week’s vision of Scott Morrison trying to explain his attitude to women in and out of politics reveals a lot about how we are governed. He said he wanted more women in power, but convinced no-one that he can make this happen.

For much of that pivotal media conference he seemed lost for words. This was not the master of the deft phrase we have come to know over the years, able to turn tricky refugee issues and awkward budget deficits to his and his party’s political advantage. 

But those things are amenable to spin, and these are not normal times. Besides angry women Morrison has a flood disaster on his hands, the latest in a string of big events – intense, widespread drought, devastating wildfires, the global pandemic – that have bedevilled his time in office. 

Scott Morrison’s pre-parliamentary life involved promoting tourism and the Liberal Party. For someone who cut his teeth on neat packaging and brief sound grabs, the recent natural disasters and the cultural crisis around women are unfamiliar, uncomfortable territory.

The PM has had his moments. After a poor showing in the 2019-20 bushfire crisis he led from the front as the pandemic took hold, enacting tough measures to prevent the virus’s spread. His leadership wasn’t above criticism, but it was a cut above the massive missteps in other countries.

Confronted by a public health emergency the Morrison government followed expert advice. Faced with the vastly bigger threat from climate change, now starkly obvious in Australia, it has reverted to type, rejecting expertise and talking about other things. 

Refusing to deal with this reality, identified decades ago by science, has been the hallmark of conservative governments going back to John Howard, but has become especially egregious since Tony Abbott came to power in 2013. Nearly eight years and two prime ministers later, it is utterly unforgiveable.

The flooding, like the fires and the drought preceding it, seems to have come as a surprise to both federal and state governments. It would not have been had they kept an eye on what science is focused on: rising carbon emissions and a warming, more energetic atmosphere. 

Like the drought and fires, politicians and others have called last week’s rain a “one-in-100-year event”. It’s not, and neither were those earlier disasters. Such terms had a value once, many years ago, when climates moved within more or less predictable limits.

But no more. The unstable climate that science has long warned about has arrived. With no predictable limits, we can expect extreme weather events – extreme dry, extreme wet, severe rainfall, coastal storms, fire storms – to happen more often and to get worse. 

I’m as sick of repeating this sort of stuff as I’m sure you are of reading about it. I fear being seen as the boy crying wolf, when in fact the wolf has been on the threshold for decades and is now in the front hallway. And I’m getting too old for extreme weather, even when others are bearing the brunt of it.

Hope springs eternal. I had hoped premier Peter Gutwein’s State of the State address this month would show a rising awareness of climate-related issues. His much-needed waste levy and a rapid phase-out of single-use plastics are good initiatives we should support.

But his announced carbon-neutral tourism goal is a con-job. As long as tourism relies on fossil-fuelled air travel it will never be anything but a net emitter. 

The Premier’s Economic and Social Recovery Advisory Council, or PESRAC, consulted widely across the state, conducting a dozen public workshops, consulting 56 organisations and considering 178 written submissions – an impressive 12-month effort.

Its report shows that these top-level officials understand that rebuilding the economy must account fully for community engagement, the importance of place and, underpinning everything, a healthy and sustainable natural environment. This is heartening.

But the report does not make clear that environmental imperatives must be integrated into all official decisions, without exception. Until that happens we will continue along the same old path of planning and administrative errors exacerbating the impact of climate change.

Elections derail agendas, and the premier has ended a succession of four-year terms by going to the polls after just three years. Such partisan gamesmanship always comes at a price.

Early elections, like economic numbers, are not real but artefacts of politics and government. Leaders seem incapable of focusing on what’s real, on people’s lived experience – things like inequity and insecurity – and on the global experience of a heating, destabilised climate.

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