20/08/2020 1:28 PM AEST | Updated 20/08/2020 1:51 PM AEST

Coronavirus AstraZeneca Vaccine: Those Who Refuse Should Have Freedoms Restricted, Says Sydney Doctor

The potential vaccine won’t be mandatory, but some experts are questioning if “crazy anti-vaxxers” should face travel bans and compulsory labelling.

Pool via Getty Images
Prime Minister Scott Morrison takes a tour at the AstraZeneca laboratories in Macquarie Park, on August 19, 2020 in Sydney, Australia.

A Sydney doctor has slammed a revitalised anti-vaccination movement that has gained traction as Australia signs a deal to secure a potential COVID-19 vaccine that would be rolled out cost-free to citizens. 

Dr Zac Turner wants the federal government to curtail the freedoms of people who refuse the potential COVID-19 vaccine, including travel, and has raised the idea that businesses including shops, gyms, pubs and restaurants could refuse those who weren’t vaccinated.

“People’s movements should be curtailed if they’re refusing a vaccine that has proven efficacy from the same groups that have made other successful vaccines,” Turner, who holds a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery from the University of Sydney and has worked with vaccinations in Africa and the most rural areas of Australia, told HuffPost Australia. 

“No interstate travel and a restriction on travel within the state,” he said. “Just from Sydney to Byron you can spread a lot of coronavirus.”  

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday said he had signed an agreement with British drugmaker AstraZeneca to produce and distribute enough doses of a potential coronavirus vaccine, developed by Oxford University, for 25 million doses.

“Should we be in a position for the trials to be successful, we would hope that this would be made available early next year. If it can be done sooner than that, great,” Morrison said.

After initially hinting the vaccine would “be as mandatory as you can possibly make it” for all Australians, Morrison back pedalled. 

“It’s not going to be compulsory to have the vaccine,” he later told Sydney’s 2GB Radio.

“We can’t hold someone down and make them take it.”

Lisa Maree Williams via Getty Images
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is seen wearing a face mask during a press conference at AstraZeneca on August 19, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. The Australian government has announced an agreement with the British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca to secure at least 25 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine if it passes clinical trials.

Turner agreed that “no one wants to force vaccinations” but said the biggest threat to the return to normality is those who refuse to be vaccinated. He said the government needs to start thinking about strategies to deal with public resistance to a vaccine.

“Australians already have a yellow vaccine card,” he explained. 

“When Australians travel overseas we have to show a Yellow Vaccine Card that we’ve had typhoid, yellow fever or different vaccinations to go into certain countries and it should be the same here. These could easily be turned into electronic vaccine cards and offered to each Australian.”

Turner suggested identifying people who refuse vaccinations as a future health measure. At least 2-5% of the Australian population cannot be vaccinated due to health reasons, especially those with serious allergies.  

“It’s important to protect those who can’t be vaccinated by having everyone around them vaccinated,” he said.

"The foundations of my medical training were involved in infectious disease and vaccinations. Before I studied medicine and one of the key factors that led me to study it in the first place was the several months that I spent volunteering alongside Médecins Sans Frontières in the Republic of Congo. Between 2002 and 2003 I helped vaccinate the local populations from mumps, measles, rubella, polio, and tetanus. First-hand I saw a community struggling to achieve herd-immunity. It was this training and experience that has moulded my strong passion for vaccinations, as I have seen the devastation when herd immunity does not exist," Dr Zac Turner.

For many people around the world, the prospect of a coronavirus vaccine offers a beacon of hope and the fastest and cleanest route to a return to normality. Vaccines typically take years to develop, but amid the widespread suffering that the pandemic has caused, scientists are working to accelerate that timeline.

Conspiracy theories and misinformation, spread widely on social media platforms, have fuelled distrust of a coronavirus vaccine. As a result, regardless of when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, an even bigger challenge may be getting the public to embrace it.

A poll on on Thursday shows 70% of voters would refuse a vaccine. There were 69,000 votes recorded at time of publishing this article on Thursday.  

Surveys in other countries have revealed similarly large swaths of the public are skeptical about a coronavirus vaccine.

Germany, for example, has long been a hotbed of anti-vaccination sentiment. Polls conducted by the University of Erfurt, in collaboration with the Robert Koch Institute and other public health organisations, have found that the percentage of Germans who would be willing to get a coronavirus vaccine has been declining — from 79% in April to 63% as of July.

David McNew via Getty Images
A protester holds an anti-vaccination sign as supporters of President Donald Trump rally to reopen California as the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen, on May 16, 2020 in Woodland Hills, California. The protesters, organized by the activist group, Latinos 4 Trump 2020, are angry about restrictions related to the virus that causes COVID-19 disease and are calling for such restrictions regarding businesses, social distancing and recreational movement to end as soon as possible. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Despite the movement picking up online, an anti-vaxx movement is unlikely to gain significant strength in Australia, according to professor Colin Pouton of Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

“They are a relatively small proportion of the population,” he said, while adding it is ethical to give people the right to opt out of a vaccination. 

“The aim of a vaccine program will be to vaccinate 80-90% of the population to reduce transmission. If the vaccines work, then the population that are vaccinated will be protected anyway.”    

While messaging about how quickly scientists are working to develop and approve a vaccine has contributed to fears that researchers may be rushing, and that any eventual coronavirus vaccine won’t be safe, Dr Turner stressed that the Australian medical community is not cutting corners. 

“We have the best scientists and doctors and researchers in the world, we will be pushing the safest best and most efficacious alternative,” he said. 

“Let’s pre-stop these crazy anti-vaxxers with the conspiracy theories saying doctors are being paid by AstraZeneca to talk about this - all AstraZeneca are paid to do is replicate the vaccine that the university comes up with, they’re not even producing it.”

With international and interstate travel off the cards for Australians until July 2021, the unemployment rate peaking at 7.5%, a wrecked economy and suicide and mental illness rates predicted to jump, there is a huge desire to return to normality. But experts warn we should not “hang our hat” on the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“It is important to accept that we do not have a functional vaccine at this stage,” said Pouton. 

“I am optimistic and quite confident that there will be effective vaccines to reduce the spread of the pandemic. They may need to be given in a seasonal manner in the future.  It is not possible at this stage to predict whether the Oxford/AZ vaccine will be effective, so Australia needs to be able to get access to other vaccine technologies.”