Australia’s vaccination rates are surging ahead as the country races towards 70% and 80% double dose vaccination levels for those over the age of 16.
43.2% of the country are now fully vaccinated, with 68.5% now having received at least one dose. At this rate, we should hit 70% by late October, and 80% by mid-November.
Those milestones are of course when freedoms will start to return safely to Australia and we can being to see life begin to return to some semblance of normality.
However, within that four-phase plan that the federal government has outlined as a COVID management strategy, booster jabs for the fully vaccinated are written in as part of the continuing battle against controlling COVID that will go on for longer than the lockdowns.
Already, the government has ordered 15 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, with most of those designated for booster jabs and Health Minister Greg Hunt has said that a booster would likely be offered in Australia “12 months” after initial vaccination, although no concrete policy has yet been set.
In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has just announced that the over 50s will now be eligible for booster jabs and in Israel, booster shots look to have tapered off the worst of a surge in Delta infections that had been sweeping the country.
So, is a top-up of the vaccine every year something we’re going to have to get used to like the flu jab? Or is it a bit early to be thinking about extra doses when a significant minority of the world still hasn’t had one? Here’s everything you need to know.
Not Everyone Will Need Booster Shots
Dr Steph Davis, GP, public health practitioner, and epidemiologist, spoke recently in a video from the Health Department in which she explained that we don’t actually know exactly who will need a booster just yet.
With the vaccines being relatively new, scientists are not certain over how long immunity will last with them.
“We know that we are probably likely to need booster doses at some point but we are not sure when that will be because, at the moment, we don’t know how long immunity lasts from the vaccine and we don’t know what those booster doses will look like”.
New variants like the Delta variant also change our need for booster shots as the regular vaccines may not offer full protection against emerging variants.
“We may end up in a situation where we will need boosters either because our immunity wanes over time and/or because there are new variants around and we need to tweak the vaccine a little bit to stave off those variants as well”.
This is similar to our current approach with the flu, Davis points out. Much like the flu shot, not everyone will need to get it but could do so as a precaution.
Those who are most likely to need a booster jab will be the elderly and those at high risk of developing serious complications from a COVID infection.
Should We Really Be Getting Booster Shots?
With much of the world still unvaccinated, especially in African countries where many places currently have less than 5% vaccine coverage, it might seem a bit callous to be dishing out extra protections in a wealthy country like Australia.
The difference here is between a booster shot and a third dose. While a booster shot is typically given to top up someone’s prevailing immune response, a third dose is given to those whose immune system may not be able to mount a robust response to the virus with two doses alone.
Immunocompromised people would be the key demographic here, and experts have generally agreed that a third shot is recommended for those with underlying health conditions who may not be able to fight off a COVID infection.
For the rest of the population though, booster shots may be unnecessary and even dangerous from an international perspective at this point in time, given the lack of global supply.
In August, the WHO called for a moratorium on administering COVID-19 booster shots, to reduce global vaccine inequality and prevent the emergence of new coronavirus variants in populations with low vaccine coverage.
“We’re planning to hand out extra life jackets to people who already have life jackets, while we’re leaving other people to drown without a single life jacket,” Mike Ryan, the executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, said last month.
Nick Wood of the National Centre of Immunisation Research and Surveillance in Sydney told the ABC that the “marginal benefit” booster doses might offer wealthy countries paled in comparison to the “much more significant benefit” primary vaccine doses would provide people in low-income countries.
“The other thing is that in wealthy countries, there are stronger healthcare systems — you’re more likely to get access to oxygen and ventilatory support … than you would be if you lived in a low-income country,” he said.
“And so the prevention [afforded by] the vaccine is even more important.”
Some vaccines are given in courses of three jabs to provoke a more comprehensive immune response and a booster shot may do just that for COVID-19 — but with the protection offered by the vaccines available in Australia above 90% for serious illness and a significantly lower rate of transmission, it might not be something we need to rush out and get just yet.
Dr Davis has said that we all need to remember that “vaccination is not a magic bullet”.
“The vaccines are excellent, they provide really good coverage, they are really good against protecting from severe disease and death, but they are not a magic bullet that is going to make Covid go away on their own”.
“Even at relatively high vaccination rates, it looks unlikely that we are going to reach a stage where they will control the virus on their own”.
With that said, while the boosters will no doubt be effective and necessary for some, a national rollout at this point may be premature.