Australia to begin mass vaccinations in February

Facing fresh outbreaks of Covid-19, Australia's government has pledged to start mass vaccinations in February instead of March as was planned.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said regulators were now expected to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine by the end of January.

He announced the plans on Thursday as the cities of Sydney and Melbourne battled to control new clusters.

By March, four million Australians could be vaccinated, he said.

"We are now in a position where believe we will be able to commence vaccinations in mid-to-late February," Mr Morrison said.

Following regulatory approval, the first of the country's order of 10 million Pfizer vaccine doses should be issued in a matter of weeks.

Authorities also struck a deal with AstraZeneca, which developed a vaccine with Oxford University, to produce doses locally. Approval of that vaccine is expected in February, Mr Morrison said.

With both vaccines approved, Australia aims to vaccine 80,000 people each week at first and then accelerate the pace, the government says. It aims to inoculate four million people by early March.

The priority groups in the first round include the 700,000 frontline workers in the health sector, border enforcement and care homes, along with the residents of care homes.

Following that, Australians aged over 70, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders over 55, healthcare workers, adults with underlying health conditions and emergency services workers will be next.

Two new clusters of infections are concerning authorities in the country, where overall case numbers and deaths have been comparatively low.

Around 28,500 coronavirus infections and 909 deaths have been reported since the pandemic began. By contrast, the US, which is the hardest-hit country, has recorded more than 21 million infections and nearly 362,000 people have died with the disease.

Mr Morrison added that authorities were trying to stop the spread of a more contagious variant of Covid-19 that was first identified in the UK. A number of arrivals in Australia have tested positive for that strain.

Globally, Israel is the leader in vaccinating the most number of people, followed by United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, according to a global tracking website affiliated with Oxford University.