Booster shot program brought forward to fight Omicron variants

The federal government is urging older Australians to get their COVID booster shots a month earlier than previously prescribed, in light of the highly transmissible Omicron variant and the resilient Delta strain.

And scientists say they have identified a new version of Omicron that cannot be distinguished from other variants through standard polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.

Scientists are calling it the stealth variant and have spotted it in Australia and Canada. It has mutations in common with Omicron but lacks markers that allow lab-based PCR tests to flag probable cases.

It’s too early to know whether this “stealthy” Omicron version will spread in the same way as the standard variant, but scientists are concerned it may behave differently and may already have spread.

UK officials conceded that Omicron appears to be more transmissible and have flagged the likelihood of further restrictions.

Researchers are still ‘getting to know’ the Omicron variant. What they can confirm so far is that it is different. It is better at sneaking through immune defences than Delta, and a number of mutations in its spike protein reduces the ability of neutralising antibodies to bind to it. This means it spreads primarily by (re-)infecting previously immunised hosts.

Read: Allowing Omicron into Australia not yet an option for over-65s

Scientists believe the ‘stealth’ version of Omicron may be harder to track.

Many countries are already seeing spikes in Omicron cases. Numbers are doubling every two to three days in the UK, reports The Guardian.

The so far positive news is that scientists are unsure about the virulence of Omicron.

Largely anecdotal evidence suggests Omicron might be milder. However, all infections start with mild symptoms before severe disease develops. Still, hospitalisation and death rates in South Africa, where the variant has a foothold, have remained far below numbers recorded during previous waves.

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) is wasting no time trying to get ahead of Omicron and has changed the national booster rollout in response to the variant.

The advice follows the UK response to what UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson warns will be a “tidal wave” of Omicron.

“No-one should be in any doubt, there is a tidal wave of Omicron coming,” says Mr Johnson, urging the public to “get boosted now” to “protect our freedoms” and reduce the need for further restrictions.

Read: How you’ll be reminded to get your COVID booster

He says scientists have discovered that being fully vaccinated is “simply not enough” to prevent the spread of the mutation and that, without a lightning speed mass booster campaign, the UK’s national health system could be overwhelmed.

He is urging citizens over 18 to get the booster shot a month earlier than six months after the second dose.

The Australian department of health also wants anyone who’s had their second jab at least five months ago to get their booster now, in a bid to slow the spread of the new variant in Australia.

“Given the likelihood of ongoing transmission of both Omicron and Delta variants, ATAGI recommends COVID-19 booster vaccination for anyone aged 18 and older who completed their primary course of COVID-19 vaccination five or more months ago,” says ATAGI.

Around 670,000 Australians have already received a booster shot.

While the new variant does not appear to cause more serious illness, the government wants Aussies to get ‘boosted’ now to guard against any waning immunity over time.

Just last week, chief medical officer Paul Kelly said there was no need to change the timing of the booster shot as there was not enough evidence to support such a move.

“There is no evidence to suggest, at the moment, that an earlier booster dose of the current COVID-19 vaccines will augment the protection against the omicron variant,” he said.

Read: COVID booster jabs needed for older Australians: vaccine body

However, more has been learnt about the variant, including its transmissibility, meaning the advice has changed.

Pfizer has already been approved for the booster program and Moderna has been granted final approval to be offered as a booster shot.

The government bought 25 million doses of the Moderna vaccine, with 15 million of those slated to be used in the first half of 2022 as boosters. They will be available at some pharmacies and health clinics.

“Australia’s whole-of-population booster program is supported by more than 151 million Pfizer, Novavax and Moderna vaccines secured for supply into the future,” said health minister Greg Hunt.

“Australia is well prepared to provide booster doses as approvals are provided by the medical experts.”

Are you happy with the government’s response to the new Omicron variants? Will you get your booster shot earlier than six months after your second jab? Why not share your thoughts about this variant and response in the comments section below?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.