The Pfizer deal was an insurance policy we needed, but it was too little, too late


The government offers three main defenses against the accusation of letting the Australians down by taking too long.

The first is that Australia could not get more doses. “Pfizer has offered the Australian government the purchase of 10 million doses,” Hunt said Thursday. In other words, the government took what it could get. “There was no dose previously available for Australia,” he said.


The second is the contract date makes no difference to the delivery date. The government says the proof is in Japan: it signed a deal with Pfizer in July last year, five months ahead of Australia, but received its first delivery in February this year, the same month as the Australia.

The third is that the government has focused on a more important goal: sovereign capacity. Seeing that the global supply was volatile, Morrison and Hunt made sure Australia could make its own vaccines. They did this by helping CSL manufacture doses of AstraZeneca in Melbourne.

The emphasis on local manufacturing made sense when the European Union restricted vaccine exports. Pfizer and others have also prioritized shipments to countries with high coronavirus infection rates, as Morrison argued on Thursday. But the insurance policy was still too small.

In Singapore, for example, scientists moved quickly to find the most promising vaccine producers. Singapore placed a deposit with Moderna, the other mRNA vaccine producer, in June last year, according to a detailed account in The times of the straits. He was ready to commit to early purchase agreements that would ensure a rapid supply if the vaccine was found to be effective. He was resigned to losing money if the vaccine failed.


Singapore received its first doses of Pfizer a few days before Christmas. A few months later, he also had a manufacturing agreement – something Australia has yet to sign with an mRNA producer.

So it turns out that some countries not only got more doses earlier than Australia, but also managed to get sovereign capacity. Each of the major countries that signed on with Pfizer earlier has a higher vaccination rate than Australia today. This includes Japan.

The new documents do not explain what went wrong in the negotiations. And they only relate to Pfizer. It took the government until May of this year to sign with Moderna, but those talks remain a mystery. Officials did not appear to want a deal with Moderna in January, only to be assaulted by reality a few months later.

The ultimate defense for Morrison and Hunt is another measure. Australia’s total death toll from the virus is lower than any country mentioned here except Singapore. There have been nearly 2,000 deaths per million people in the UK compared to 41 in Australia, according to Our World In Data.

But there will have to be an investigation into every part of the pandemic response. The questions about the vaccine negotiations will not go away. Long after the pandemic, Morrison and Hunt will have to report on any deals they might have made.

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