Calls to expand fifth COVID vaccine rollout as ATAGI considers guidelines

Pressure is mounting on the federal government to expand access to a fifth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with a growing number of vulnerable Australians facing diminished immunity as the number of cases across the country rises.

Island pair Raymond Andrew and Terry MacGregor, 77 and 78, had all their shots as soon as they qualified.

But their fourth dose was given in April, and they fear they are now susceptible to the virus again.

A history of heart problems added to their worries.

"We were so nervous about COVID, we looked after ourselves and we lost touch with a lot of old friends," MacGregor said.

"Basically we stay home, we go shopping once a week, and we shop with N95 masks on."

In Australia, only adults with very weak immune systems are eligible for the fifth dose.

With Moderna's new bivalent vaccine — which targets both the original variant and the Omicron subvariant — now available in Australia, there are calls for it to be available to everyone who wants a fifth dose.

Virologist Tony Cunningham said newer variants of COVID-19 appeared more likely to avoid vaccines, and bivalent vaccines might offer higher protection.

"I hope they will be pretty good because the Omicron family [vaccine] should have a better effect on the new variant, than the original vaccine," he said.

Several countries have made the fifth dose an option for all, including the United States, which recommends that everyone who has had a booster more than three months ago get the bivalent vaccine.

Singapore also opens access to the bivalent vaccine for everyone over 18 years of age.

Mr MacGregor said it was time for Australia to follow suit.

"[ATAGI] really should really continue it — it's serious."

Cases increase

With experts warning a new wave of COVID-19 may hit Australia, the narrow eligibility for a fifth dose could soon change.

Epidemiologist Nancy Baxter said the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunization (ATAGI) would likely review the criteria.

"I'm sure they saw what the numbers were like, what hospitalization was like," he said.

In the week to November 1, more than 37,000 cases of COVID-19 were reported across Australia - a 17.3 per cent jump from the previous week, according to federal government data.

Professor Cunningham, executive director of the Westmead Institute for Medical Research, said the true number was likely to be higher.

"There has been a slight increase in cases across Australia, given this is difficult to quantify because not everyone reports their RAT test is positive, and we know that hospitalizations are rising more slowly than cases," he said.

This week, students attending a secondary school in Sydney's northwest were forced to return home after a third of the school's teaching staff tested positive for COVID-19.

Professor Cunningham said while a fifth dose would be good for some, many people still don't know about their current boosters.

Seventy-two per cent of eligible Australians had taken the third dose and only 42 per cent had received the fourth dose.

"I think if we're facing a new wave that's really worrying, and I think it's important to urge the rest of the vulnerable people to be immunized," he said.

"Sixty per cent of Australians have been infected, mostly by the Omicron family, and this has been combined with vaccines to create a good level of immunity in the community.

"Nevertheless, there are still gaps and we have to fill those gaps."This article was written by EDUKASI CAMPUS.

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