Fourth ‘winter’ COVID vaccine recommended for people over 65

Older Australians and people at the highest risk of severe disease will be able to get a fourth coronavirus vaccine ahead of winter and an expected surge in COVID-19 and flu cases.

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation announced the recommendation for an additional “winter” booster dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on Friday to increase protection for people aged over 65 and other vulnerable groups.

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said there would be no immediate change on household contact isolation rules.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

More than five million people will be eligible for the extra dose, which will apply to 4.2 million Australians aged over 65, about 230,000 aged and disability care residents, roughly 500,000 people who are severely immunocompromised, and about 80,000 Indigenous Australians aged 50 and over.

The rollout will begin in pharmacies and general practices on April 4 and can be given four to six months after the first booster shot.

“The extra dose is about preventing the most vulnerable from harm and those most at risk of severe illness,” Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said. “The evidence-based advice is to go for the high-risk groups in the first instance.”

The additional booster dose will coincide with the influenza vaccination program, meaning older Australians will be able to get the flu shot and the extra COVID-19 vaccine at the same time.

“[The] influenza vaccine can be co-administered with the additional booster dose of [a] COVID-19 vaccine. However, if a person is not yet eligible for their additional booster dose, [the] influenza vaccine could be given ahead of the additional booster dose,” ATAGI said in a statement.

Professor Kelly said the vaccine advisory group looked closely at “evidence from Israel and internationally” before making the fourth dose recommendation to the groups most at risk of severe disease.

“While there is always continuous review, the recommendation is the dose be given to the most vulnerable groups,” he said.

In a statement, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation said there was “insufficient evidence of the benefits of an additional booster dose” to recommend it to other groups at this stage.

Professor Kelly said there would be no immediate change on household contact isolation rules following an Australian Health Protection Principal Committee meeting on Wednesday.

“Given the Omicron sub-variant BA.2 cases at the moment, they are considering it and just holding [off] for this point in time,” he said.

Daily COVID-19 infections are expected to peak in April at an estimated 30,000 in NSW and about 20,000 in Victoria, according to new modelling. Omicron’s more transmissible BA.2 sub-variant is tipped to become dominant by the end of the month.

“There has been unanimous agreement to transition towards changes in close quarantine rules, but there is no change at the moment because of the current situation with BA.2. But there is a strong commitment to do that in coming weeks,” Professor Kelly said.

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