Australia has reached a significant milestone, with 70 per cent of people aged 16 fully vaccinated protected as a booster rollout draws closer.
Aged care residents are expected to start receiving third jabs from the second week of November if the medicines regulator and expert immunisation panel approves the move.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said he would have a critical meeting about booster shots on Monday.
“We’re ready, we’re in a position to commence and to make sure that additional protection is provided,” he told reporters in Canberra today (Wednesday).
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) are weighing up advice to Government.
Hunt expects the booster program for the wider population to start this year.
“My understanding is, every state and territory has a spare capacity at this point in time, and we want to keep the machine running to keep the program rolling,” he said.
“There’s a clear direction that [vaccines] are likely to go towards aged care, and it’s likely that we will have general population but we also have to actually have the TGA approval.
“That is in the late stages.”
Chief Health Officer Paul Kelly said older people and aged care residents who were initial rollout priorities could be the first recipients.
“They will be the first in line because they are now six or more months after that second dose,” he said.
“It’s likely they will be the first ones to get it, but let’s see what ATAGI comes back with.”
Kelly met with ATAGI on Tuesday when evidence from booster programs around the world was considered.
“We are able to look at the data that had come out from Israel,” he said.
“It very much confirms this is safe, it is effective in all age groups for both decreasing infection as well as severe disease and, for the older age groups, prevention of death.”
About 500,000 people with severely compromised immune systems are already eligible for a third shot.
More than 85 per cent of Australians aged 16 and over have received at least one jab and 70 per cent two doses.
Australian Medical Association Victorian president Roderick McRae urged the expert immunisation panel to approve third jabs.
“The vaccine status of those healthcare workers in particular who have had those two booster doses, their protection against COVID-19 is waning,” he said.
“They should be looking after healthcare workers to ensure that they’re as protected as they possibly can be as they have made the decision to open up the community.”
People who received AstraZeneca in their initial two-dose course are likely to receive Pfizer or Moderna as their booster.
Opposition health spokesman Mark Butler said health, border and quarantine workers should join the booster program at the same time as aged care.
“Every step of the way, Scott Morrison has been months and months behind the rest of the developed world,” he told reporters in Adelaide.
“The Australian people can’t afford for him to bungle boosters as well.”
Charities and the World Health Organisation have opposed boosters in wealthy countries while poorer nations are still desperate for first rounds of vaccines.
Infectious disease expert Robert Booy said the focus should be on ensuring immunocompromised people were given another dose before Christmas.
Booy said immunity was started to wane but evidence from overseas – where vaccination rollouts started up to three months ahead of Australia – showed protection remained.
“If you’re a standard, run of the mill person who is reasonably healthy you retain immunity – and that’s after six to 12 months,” he said.
He said immunising Pacific neighbours including Papua New Guinea was a more pressing priority than third jabs for health workers in Australia with concerns the virus could mutate in poorer countries.
Booy said Australia’s booster program was not urgent given Papua New Guinea was fighting a major outbreak with a vaccination rate of under five per cent.
“They’ve got hundreds of thousands of cases and deaths,” he told the Nine Network.
Professor Booy said vaccinating PNG would save move lives and help prevent new coronavirus variants.
“We’d be stopping a mutation. A mutation in Papua New Guinea which is a canoe ride away from Australia,” he said.
“That is a way to stop further problems with COVID, to help our neighbours, to help ourselves.