Experts say annual COVID vaccinations will be the new normal

Many critics have panned the federal government for what is seen as mismanagement of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

From jumping the gun on its choice of vaccine to claims of chronic misinformation spread by its ministers, it seems no quarter has been given to the government even during trying times.

Despite criticism over the slowness of the vaccine rollout, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and co have repeatedly claimed the vaccination rollout is “not a race”.

Many would say current events strongly suggest that appraisal is incorrect, perhaps irresponsible. One could easily make a case that the rollout – necessary to save lives and livelihoods – is indeed a race.

Repeatedly quizzed by the media for his use of the ‘not a race’ phrase, the PM stands by his appraisal of the rollout claiming he and his ministers are merely following expert advice from the secretary of the health department, Dr Brendan Murphy.

Dr Murphy was asked this week if this ‘advice’ still held water. 

“I think I did say it way back in January at a press conference, when there was this discussion about racing through the TGA [Therapeutic Goods Administration] approval process, and I think I did say it’s not a race at that time,” he said.

“It is a term that I did use, way back then.”

But “we’ve moved on”.

“It’s not a very helpful phrase now because we’re going. We’re in action, we’re fired up and we’re doing it as quickly as possible.”

Read more: Health experts tell how to counter COVID vaccine side-effects

Experts are now saying vaccinations may likely be an annual event, potentially adding pressure on the government to get it right the first time.

“At some point, we will see COVID-19 being included as part of our national immunisation schedule for both adults and children, and perhaps we will need regular booster shots from time to time to make sure we continue to be protected, especially against any new emerging variants,” said Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.

“And, once in a while, there will be people who will be infected, just like TB (tuberculosis), just like tetanus.”

Prof. Teo was joined by other health and science experts on a live panel discussion organised by The Straits Times earlier this week.

The discussion involved experts from Singapore, which has largely brought the virus under control but is undergoing similar outbreaks to Victoria right now.

Read more: What the experts say about vaccine hesitancy in older Aussies

Professor Lisa Ng, executive director of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) Infectious Diseases Labs, shares Prof. Teo’s opinion about regular vaccinations.

“The coronavirus is a very large RNA virus, so it is bound to have occasional mutations as the virus continues to spread and evolve … but it is actually very important to note that most mutations are actually harmless and do not necessarily cause more severe diseases in healthy people,” she said.

“Now, currently, the data has indicated that while this mutation is more transmissible, it is not necessarily more deadly. So eventually, COVID-19 will become endemic, like the common cold and other respiratory infections.”

They say the most likely vaccination scenario in our ‘new normal’ COVID world would be booster shots annually updated with the new variants, similarly to the flu vaccine.

Scientists will need to monitor all emerging variants for detection systems to be robust and sensitive enough to detect the virus even in asymptomatic patients, Prof. Ng added.

And even though countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Singapore have enjoyed relative success controlling the virus, the pandemic is far from over, says Dr Danny Soon, chief executive officer of the Consortium for Clinical Research and Innovation, Singapore, who warned that even a small leak will quickly rip through unvaccinated people.

The only ‘protection’ against the virus is to be vaccinated, says Dr Soon.

“Very few people who are vaccinated get very ill or die from the disease,” he said.

Outbreaks in the US and Britain were 10 times worse than in Singapore, yet both countries have relaxed restrictions and allowed people to mingle.

Singapore, like Australia, takes the opposite stance, increasing restrictions to varying degrees in a bid to stamp out the virus rather than take the chance on losing lives.

The more infectious B1617 ‘Indian’ strain has Singapore and Australia on high alert.

This variant has a much higher viral load, and the incubation period is much shorter in many cases and longer in others. 

Read more: Do vaccines work on the ‘Indian’ variant of the coronavirus?

A person can be contagious just one or two days after being infected, or after more than 14 days, said Prof. Teo. 

For countries adjusting to more infectious variants, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the importance of increasing the pace of vaccination, as well as faster testing and contact tracing. He also said self-testing should become part of the new normal.

Regardless, it is clear based on global data that vaccination works.

Preliminary data from Singapore shows that 97 to 98 per cent of vaccinated people will generate antibodies against the spike protein of the coronavirus. 

And in the US, where more than 100 million people have been vaccinated, data shows that should people become infected, symptoms are very mild or there are no symptoms at all, noted Prof. Teo

“Vaccination is not just to protect but it is also to enable us to return to a degree of normalcy in our lives,” he said.

Are you okay with annual COVID shots? How do you think the federal government has managed the vaccine rollout? Do you think the media’s assessment of the federal government’s handling of the pandemic is fair? Why not share your thoughts 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.
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