Australia weighing whether to let athletes jump vaccine queue

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MELBOURNE, April 16 (Reuters) - Australia is considering whether to prioritise athletes and support staff in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout with the Tokyo Olympics fast approaching.

The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) has asked the government to allow athletes to jump the queue as the country's national vaccine program struggles with roadblocks.

"The government is in direct contact with the AOC over its proposal to priority vaccinate all Olympic team athletes and support staff," sports minister Richard Colbeck told state broadcaster ABC.

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Australia has restricted the rollout of its favoured AstraZeneca vaccine to people under 50 over blood clotting concerns, slowing the national vaccination programme further after the European Union blocked exports to the country. read more

Only 1.36 million vaccine doses were administered as of Wednesday, far behind the 4 million pledged by the end of March.

The Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony is slated for July 23, though with Japan set to expand quasi-emergency measures to 10 regions as a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases spreads doubts have been raised as to whether the Games will go ahead. read more

Australian authorities recommend people who receive the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine have a booster after 12 weeks to maximise immunity.

For the Pfizer vaccine, which Australia is also employing, authorities recommend a booster after three weeks.

Swimming Australia Chief Executive Alex Baumann said on Thursday the country's Tokyo-bound swimmers should prepare themselves for the scenario where they miss out on vaccines. read more

Australia's Olympic chef de mission Ian Chesterman told Reuters in March that the team did not want to "be jumping the queue" in the rollout. read more

An AOC spokesman said it was in the "best interests of our Australian athletes" to arrive in Tokyo safely and return safely.

"Vaccination is an important ingredient in that ambition," the spokesman said in a statement.

Colbeck said the government's focus was on its vaccine roadmap, which is currently in the initial phase of vaccinating healthcare and essential workers, adults over 70 and other vulnerable groups.

"Ensuring vulnerable Australians are vaccinated against COVID-19 first remains the priority for the Morrison government," he said.

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Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford

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