Australia got another weapon in its arsenal this week with the addition of another vaccine, Novavax, bringing our total to four.
Developed by the US biotech company of the same name, the vaccine has been approved for use in adults over the age of 18 and is designed to give those who can’t or won’t get the other vaccines greater choice.
Last year, the Australian government initially ordered 51 million doses of Novavax in April, however it was not until January 2022 when the vaccine was official approved by the Thereputic Goods Administration and the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation.
Now, the rollout of Novavax has been fast tracked, with the initially start of the programme coming in a week ahead of schedule. Up and down the country, GP clinics, pharmacies, and other medical centres have been receiving stock of the vaccine after the first shipments begun arriving in the country last week.
So, what makes this vaccine different? How does it work? And why are some experts saying that this is the vaccine that will change the minds of vaccine-hesitant people? Here’s what you need to know.
How Is Novavax Different?
Novavax, unlike Pfizer or Moderna, is not an mRNA vaccine. mRNA vaccines use artificial gene sequences to teach our antibodies how to fight the COVID-19 virus. This kind of technology has been around for decades however never in the form currently being deployed which is why some people refuse to get them.
Novavax, instead, uses the actual spike proteins that encase the COVID-19 virus to teach your body how to fight a real infection. This is more aligned with traditional vaccine approaches, using weakened or dead forms of viruses to help our immune systems protect us.
The new vaccine uses the same technology we use in hepatitis B, HPV, and whooping cough. Because it’s an older approach to vaccines, it may just convince some of those who have been holding out against getting vaccinated.
What Are the Side Effects?
Much like the other vaccines, Novavax has been reported to cause mild but common side effects. Those include headaches, muscle aches, and fatigue. They shouldn’t last for more than a few days however and are reportedly more common after the second dose.
The vaccine has undergone two large phase 3 clinical trials in the US and Mexico as well as the UK. These trials found that the jab is 90% effective at preventing symptomatic infection, while its ability to prevent serious illness and death is between 87% and 100% depending on which trial data you look at. A total efficacy rate of 100% would actually make this vaccine the most effective of the ones on the table.
However, there are still tests being done to work out its efficacy against the Omicron and other variants however preliminary data would suggest that it’s still highly effective against more mutated strains.
Can You Get Novavax as a Booster?
Currently, Novavax cannot be used as a booster or in teenagers. It’s really intended to try and convince the 4% or so of the population who have yet to receive any vaccine at all as well as those who can’t can the others.
That’s around 1 million or so Australians, however we’ve certainly over ordered if that’s the size of the population we intend to vaccinate with our 52 million doses. Not all of those will accept Novavax, but we can probably expect to see a few hundred thousand pick it up.
Dr Lucas de Toca, First Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health’s COVID-19 primary care response, has said that the department is “genuinely interested” in seeing what the uptake of this vaccine will be.
“We all have… stories of patients or friends who are reluctant to get the mRNA or adenovirus vector vaccines and are waiting for Novavax … [but] the numbers are not huge overall,” he said.
“It’s hard to estimate what proportion [of unvaccinated people will want Novavax] … we are using 5–20% as a sort of working estimate to work out how much we need to pump out into the system”.
“So, 100,000 or 200,000 people if we’re optimistic but it’s a little bit unclear whether people were truly waiting for Novavax, [or if] that was a way of justifying vaccine hesitancy”.
That all being said, it’s likely that Novavax will, at some stage, end up being used for boosters or kept for long periods of time in safe storage in case of further waves. Recent data published by the company shows that their vaccine is in fact safe for use in teenagers and it’s likely that, perhaps in a year or so, we’ll be using this one as a booster if fourth doses are needed.
Otherwise, the fact that Novavax can be kept in regular fridges for four months is a real benefit as the others all require ultra-low temperature storage.
If we don’t find a use for them all, it’s likely that they will be donated by Australia to the COVAX programme designed to give developing countries access to vaccines.