Australia’s vaccine advisory group will expand the rollout of the fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose (winter booster) to the wider national population, as a third Omicron wave fast approaches.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) met on Wednesday to discuss the surge in cases due to the newer BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants.
Fourth vaccine doses are currently restricted to high-risk groups, including the immunocompromised and the elderly.
Nine Newspapers reported late on Wednesday that the vaccination rethink, which could be announced as early as this week, will allow anyone over the age of 30 to access a fourth dose of coronavirus vaccine – although jabs will be recommended only for over-50s.
So who is currently eligible to receive a fourth dose, and how long do you need to wait after having COVID before getting ‘boosted’?
Keep reading for The New Daily’s complete guide on COVID-19 booster shots.
Who is currently eligible for a fourth shot?
At the time of reporting, fourth doses remain restricted to the following high-risk groups:
- People aged 65 years and above
- Residents of aged care or disability care facilities
- People with a range of severe immunocompromising conditions
- People who have a serious underlying health condition (see here)
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 50 or above.
ATAGI last updated its fourth-dose recommendations on May 25.
The group said at the time: “Healthy people aged 16 to 64 years who do not have a risk factor for severe COVID-19 are not recommended to receive an additional winter booster dose at this time, as their risk of severe illness after their first booster dose is likely to remain very low.”
When is eligibility likely to expand?
After reviewing evidence on COVID-19 booster shots, ATAGI is planning to expand the rollout of boosters to those over the age of 30, with a focus on those over 50.
It’s unclear when the recommendations will be made to federal Health Minister Mark Butler, but they could come as soon as Thursday.
“Maybe ATAGI doesn’t make any change or maybe it simply reduces the age threshold down to something like 50 or 55 [years old] as we’ve seen in some other countries,” Mr Butler told The Guardian earlier this week.
“I’d be surprised if there was a full-scale addition to the entire population, but we’ll wait and see what their decision is.”
States lagging behind
ATAGI’s deliberation comes as state governments begin a renewed push for eligible residents to get their third doses.
Data from the federal Department of Health shows an alarming number of Australians are yet to receive their booster shots.
At the time of reporting, just 58.6 per cent of eligible Queenslanders have had their first booster, along with just 64.7 per cent of NSW residents.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard and chief health officer Kerry Chant appeared in a press conference on Tuesday, urging residents to book their third jabs.
Mr Hazzard said people were “crazy” for not getting their third doses.
“If you haven’t had your full three, to put it bluntly, you’re crazy. You should go and get them,” he said.
“That’s what is going to make a difference to stopping or at least reducing the chances of you ending up in hospital or ending up possibly dying.”
The NSW state government’s appeal comes as two Omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, drive another surge in cases and hospitalisations.
More than 3700 Australians are currently in hospital with the virus, an increase from 2700 this time last month.
To add to these concerning numbers, only 59.5 per cent of Australians aged over 65 have received four doses.
Professor Catherine Bennett, Deakin University chair of epidemiology, said the government must prioritise making sure vulnerable Australians are following through with their booster shots.
“It’s most important that these people in vulnerable categories, either because of health issues, or just age [get their second booster shots]. There’s no time to waste. People should really be looking at that,” she said.
With another COVID wave looming, Professor Bennett said second boosters would make a “big difference” in the elderly age group.
“In the older age groups, 70 and over, the uptake of [boosters] is high, but it’s not 100 per cent,” she said.
“So if you’re in the minority, and you’re going to make up the majority of people who die, it’s the time to get that second booster because that makes a big difference in that age group.”
When will second-generation vaccines be rolled out?
COVID vaccines, including Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, were all modelled on the original strain detected in late 2019.
But more than two years into the pandemic, the virus has evolved several times, with the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants gradually becoming Australia’s most dominant strains, already accounting for 35 per cent of cases in NSW.
Dr Chant acknowledged the evolving nature of the virus affected the vaccine’s effectiveness.
“Previously, we did tell you to get two doses, and that that will provide protection against COVID,” she said.
“But the virus has changed. So now with Omicron, the evidence is clear that we need three or, in some cases, four doses to provide the best protection against getting very sick.”
Moderna is currently working on an experimental booster ‘update’, which researchers say could provide more effective protection against the growing number of Omicron subvariants.
University of South Australia professor of biostatistics Adrian Esterman told The New Daily last month he hoped the vaccine will play a key part in turning things around.
“It’s a mixture of the old Wuhan strain and Omicron. And it’s much more powerful than the existing Moderna mRNA vaccine,” he said.
He expected the vaccine would be approved by the TGA in August.
“It’s still in phase three trials. They’re hoping they’ll be able to get it approved around August … When that comes out, it will definitely be worthwhile.”
How soon after having COVID can people safely get a booster?
If you’ve recently had been diagnosed with COVID, ATAGI still recommends you wait 90 days before getting your next dose of vaccine.
According to an ATAGI statement, this gap between infection and vaccine will allow for a “better immune response”.
“Waiting for a three-month period after infection before COVID-19 vaccination is intended to optimise protection for that person,” the group said in an April update.
“A longer gap between infection and vaccination is likely to lead to a better immune response and result in longer protection from reinfection.”
Professor Bennett said that if you are eligible for your third or fourth dose but haven’t had it yet, now is the time to act.
“We can’t be complacent. We should do everything we can to not get the virus if we can,” she said.
“There are people who haven’t even had their first [booster]. We really want them to have that now, even before there’s a decision on the second dose.”