The federal government is considering whether to prioritise Australian athletes and their support staff in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
- Japan is in the grip of a fourth wave of coronavirus infections leading into the postponed games
- Most athletes would normally only qualify to be vaccinated in phase 2b, the second-last category
- Swimming Australia president Kieran Perkins said the vaccinations would keep athletes safe and healthy
Discussions are underway between the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) and the government about when and how to vaccinate the roughly 480 athletes and 500 support staff expected to attend the games in July.
Japan is currently in the grip of a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, with more than 36,000 active coronavirus cases.
Suggestions were raised just yesterday by senior ruling party officials that the games could still be cancelled.
Minister for Sport Richard Colbeck confirmed the federal government is considering whether to vaccinate Australian athletes and staff as a priority.
“The government is in direct contact with the AOC over its proposal to priority vaccinate all Olympic team athletes and support staff,” he told the ABC.
Calls for quick decisions as games loom
Under the original plan, most athletes would be classified as eligible for the vaccine in phase 2b – the second-last phase of the rollout, before children under 16.
Australia’s vaccination rollout is well behind schedule due to supply issues and new medical advice and the government is no longer putting a date on when all people will be immunised.
Phase 1a and phase 1b are not expected to be completed until the middle of the year and so the AOC has asked for the classification to be reconsidered.
In a statement, a spokesman for the AOC sought to explain why athletes and support staff should receive the vaccine ahead of others in higher priority groups.
“The Australian Olympic team will be travelling overseas in the next three months,” they said.
“Our discussions with government revolve around how this requirement sits within the government’s rollout framework, taking into account the risk to athletes’ health and well-being.
“We think it is in the best interests of our Australian athletes to arrive in Tokyo safely and return safely [and] vaccination is an important ingredient in that ambition.”
Calls to put the elderly before athletes
The federal opposition has urged the government not to prioritise athletes ahead of the millions of people in phase 1a and 1b.
Labor MP Josh Burns said he was disappointed Health Minister Greg Hunt was considering the request.
“The federal government has still failed to complete phase one of its vaccine program [which includes] aged care residents and staff; disability care residents and staff; and immunocompromised Australians,” he said.
“There is clearly not enough supply and we are still at risk of an outbreak. We need to be prioritising vulnerable Australians.”
Mr Burns said he did not agree with the AOC’s argument that Olympians should be prioritised because they were travelling to a country with a high number of coronavirus cases.
The call to vaccinate all people in phase 1a and 1b ahead of athletes is personal for Mr Burns, as his wife and many other family members are immunocompromised.
“My wife had a blood disease that affected her blood clotting, so as a result she had her spleen removed about five years ago and that affects her immune system,” he said.
“But she’s not the only one in my family who’s immunocompromised … like many Australians.”
‘Do we want Australia at the Tokyo Olympics or not?’
Any Australian government officials deployed overseas, like diplomats and military figures, are eligible to get their vaccine now.
Across the ditch, New Zealand has allowed its athletes to jump the queue because their travel is considered of “national significance”.
Mr Perkins said the vaccines would ensure athletes and support staff remained safe.
“I would ask the question of the community at large, what is it that we see as being a priority and opportunity that drives a choice in this?” he said.
Mr Perkins said the Olympics was not just about the athletes, but was an event that would provide joy to millions of people.
“For many of us who have been negatively impacted by the pandemic, this really gives us all the opportunity to remember some of the great things that happened pre-pandemic,” he said.
“If the vaccine becomes the defining factor of attendance then that’s a choice, do we want Australia at the Tokyo Olympics or not?”
Mr Perkins argued that prioritising athletes and their support staff would not significantly delay the rollout for those who would otherwise be ahead in the queue.
“From an overall impact and scale perspective, it doesn’t feel like it’s a particularly reasonable argument to be suggesting that the community at large would be dramatically disadvantaged by that opportunity,” he said.
The AOC has also asked for athletes and staff under the age of 50 to receive the Pfizer vaccine, following new medical advice issued last week.
“The vast majority of our athlete contingent are under 50 and the new government guidelines stipulate Pfizer as the appropriate vaccine for this group, and team officials over the age of 50 will receive AstraZeneca,” an AOC spokesman told the ABC.
The opening ceremony for Tokyo Games will be held on Friday, July 23 — meaning there is a little over three months left for athletes to prepare.
The AstraZeneca vaccine requires 12 weeks between doses, while Pfizer needs just 21 days, or three weeks.
Swimming Australia president and gold-medal-winning swimmer Kieren Perkins has backed calls for his athletes and other Australian competitors to be offered Pfizer vaccines before the games.
He said time and training interruptions had to be a consideration in a rollout.
“We want to make sure our athletes are given the best chance to be healthy and maintain that health through their preparation,” he said.
“So, whatever the best vaccine that we can get that has the least potential side effects and the quickest dose cycle, we would want to try and access that.”
AOC confident vaccinations will be completed before the opening ceremony
The government is yet to make a final decision on how to vaccinate the Australian Olympic team, but AOC vice-president Ian Chesterman said he was confident both doses would be administered to the team before the Olympics begin.
“We know there is a commitment from the government to achieve that for the Australian team,” he said on Wednesday.
“We are sending an Australian team to the Olympic Games and then we are bringing that Australian team home and it’s clearly in the interests of the Australian population back here for our athletes to arrive back vaccinated.”
Mr Colbeck said the proposal was being considered and the government’s focus was still those in phases 1a and 1b.
“Ensuring vulnerable Australians are vaccinated against COVID-19 first remains the priority for the Morrison government,” Mr Colbeck said.
Health Minister Greg Hunt indicated last month that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) could possibly provide vaccines, but the AOC said that was no longer a possibility.
“This is something we did look at, however none of the vaccines available via this IOC initiative have been approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia so that is not an option for our athletes,” an AOC spokesman said.