Supply squeeze as pharmacies ramp up jabs

(AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

Despite some pharmacists running short of vaccine doses, federal health officials say their “highly complex” delivery in areas hit by COVID outbreaks won’t be compromised.

About 700 pharmacies across Australia are delivering the AstraZeneca jab, with that number expected to grow to 3500 by the end of August.

The president of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia, Trent Twomey, tells AAP there are massive queues at pharmacies in western Sydney and Brisbane.

Although there is much less demand in places such as Western Australia and northern Queensland, Professor Twomey warns those states spared Delta outbreaks so far: “Don’t wait until you have 20-year-olds dropping dead, don’t wait until you’re in lockdown … get vaccinated now.” 

He says some pharmacies in outbreak states are using a fortnight’s worth of stock in two days.

“It’s wonderful the demand is there, we just wish the distribution was better,” Prof Twomey said.

The Department of Health told AAP the National COVID Vaccine Taskforce was committed to ensuring the safe and efficient delivery of vaccines Australiawide, a logistical exercise it described as “significant and unprecedented”.

It said 288 community pharmacies were vaccinating across the country as of August 2 and by the start of this week, a minimum 676 would have received doses of AstraZeneca.

“The highly complex nature of this operation, including careful storage and handling of temperature-sensitive vaccines, needs to be considered and will not be compromised,” the department said in a statement.

“Delivery partners have been working hard to meet demand with the addition community pharmacies, which has been compounded by recent COVID-19 lockdowns.”

Prof Twomey questioned why Australia’s existing wholesale medicine delivery system wasn’t deployed for the COVID vaccine rollout.

The federal government’s Community Service Obligation program pays wholesalers to provide the full range of PBS medicines to pharmacies across Australia, regardless of location and relative cost of supply, within a 24- to 72-hour window.

The program costs more than $200 million a year and is part of broader funding for pharmacies worth $18 billion.

“Taxpayers are funding this … yet for some funny reason we chose to use another distribution system (for vaccines) with a turnaround time of two weeks,” Professor Twomey said.

In December 2020 the federal government opted for a separate arrangement, signing contracts with major distribution companies DHL Supply Chain and Linfox to design and operate a specialised national COVID vaccine distribution network.

Under that system, the Health Department said, “ordering windows” were now open for a set consistent time frame and deliveries were due weekly by the following fortnight.

It said pharmacies in outbreak areas were receiving up to 600 doses a fortnight, with more available as necessary.

Urgent orders and deliveries are able to be made where a pharmacy unexpectedly exceeds supply with delivery within 24-72 hours.

Professor Twomey said the Guild had been talking to politicians since January about pharmacists delivering the COVID jab, noting they had the same training as doctors and nurses to deliver vaccines.

“Community pharmacies are the most accessible piece of healthcare infrastructure in Australia; we’re open earlier and later and on weekends,” he said.


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