Major changes are coming to Australia’s Covid booster program, with the wait times between jabs to be slashed.
Health Minister Greg Hunt announced on Friday the government would bring forward boosters from five months to four months from January 4 and to three months from January 31.
The changes were made following advice from Australia’s expert immunisation panel ATAGI.
“These dates have been set out of an abundance of caution to give Australians early continued protection,” Mr Hunt said.
“The advice we have is that the protection as it is very strong against severe illness, but what we’ll see is a much stronger protection against transmission.”
Health Minister Greg Hunt has announced COVID vaccine booster intervals will be brought forward to four months from January 4 and then to three months on January 31. Mr Hunt emphasised the decision was taken on the basis of advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI). "This morning we will pass the 2 million booster mark – that’s half a million ahead of schedule at this point in time so Australians have been really fantastic in coming forward," Mr Hunt told a media conference on Friday.
It comes after days of speculation the time between vaccination boosters would be slashed, as ATAGI reviewed the existing system, comparing it to overseas experience.
The change means around 7.5 million Australians will be eligible for a booster on January 4, and around 16 million Australians from January 31.
The government will prioritise those who have had longer times between being vaccinated, as well as older and immunocompromised populations.
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly said there had been a rise in intensive care patients in recent days.
He said the decision to bring forward the time between doses had been a difficult but important decision due to the fast-moving nature of the new variant.
“Our main aim of the program is to protect those that are most at risk of severe disease, the positive effect of that is that we do know now that boosters do protect and increase that protection against severe disease,” Professor Kelly said.
“Boosters at this stage can help stop the transmission of the virus.”
Almost 200,000 Australians showed up to get vaccinated in the past 24 hours, including 148,000 for boosters.
The Omicron variant first emerged as a concern in Australia four weeks ago, with authorities gaining information over that time about the severity of the new variant and effectiveness of vaccines.
Professor Kelly said evidence in recent days and weeks had shown boosters showed to be more protective, while there was a “waning” protection with those who had only had their first or second dose.
“The information we know is that unfortunately two doses does not change the ability to become infected,” Professor Kelly said.
“We know that it is not an immediate thing when the vaccine starts to wear off, it‘s a time-based thing.”
The changes come as state leaders across the country implemented their own protection measures against the virus this week.
Omicron numbers have been doubling the rate of cases every two or three days overseas, which is a trend that is now emerging in Australia, despite hospitalisations and ICU admission remaining steady.
Both NSW, ACT and Victoria this week introduced indoor mask mandates as cases continued to skyrocket.
Tasmania, Queensland and South Australia have also mandated masks across indoor settings.
In WA, people in the Perth and Peel regions must now wear a mask in all public indoor settings, while in Northern Territory masks only have to be worn inside airports and on planes.
Mr Hunt said the new measures introduced would help stop the spread of the virus.
“They‘re always challenging times but when we look at this year we have one of the lowest rates of loss of life in the world and we have one of the highest vaccination rates,” he said.