The Australian Health Department’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has provisionally approved a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine for the booster program to continue to protect adults against COVID-19.
Pfizer is so far the only vaccine provider to apply for approval of a booster shot in Australia, although Health Minister Greg Hunt says Moderna is expected to apply soon.
The booster dose has only been approved for people who are 18 years old or older. Pfizer will be available as a booster dose for all adults, regardless of whether their first and second doses were Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca.
However, children aged 12 and older can also receive a third dose of Pfizer if they are immunocompromised, as per recommendations released earlier this month.
According to Minister Hunt, the booster shots are expected to be available from 8 November for people who were considered to be in priority groups at the beginning of the rollout - residents in disability care and aged care - although people living in these settings will likely still have to wait six months from their second dose before their third dose is administered.
It is expected people not in residential care who are approaching the six month mark after their second dose could later be notified by text message or email to book in their third dose.
Speaking on morning television, Prime Minister Scott Morrison praised Australia’s first dose vaccination rate of more than 87 percent and second dose rate of more than 74 percent, saying the third dose would be delivered through similar avenues.
”We'll be looking to do that in similar ways to the way we've been doing the vaccinations now. And so the States [and Territories] will be keeping a fair bit of their infrastructure in place to deliver that. We'll obviously be leaning heavily again on the primary health network, on pharmacists, and GPs who have done the heavy lifting on getting these vaccination rates,” he says.
The TGA says the priority of the Government’s vaccine rollout continues to be for all Australians over the age of 12 to receive two doses of Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca vaccine.
The second dose will continue to be counted as full vaccination for now, as the third dose is seen only as a booster.
According to the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), the Government’s current arrangements with vaccine providers will procure enough vaccines for the Australian population’s first, second and additional doses over the next two or three years.
ATAGI is still required to approve the third dose program before the Government can make a final announcement.
The Government’s announcement about the details of the booster program is expected before the end of next week.
Boosters vital for people with weakened immune systems, disability
On 8 October, ATAGI announced immunocompromised people were recommended to have a third dose to bring their immune response to the vaccine as close as possible to being in line with people who are not immunocompromised.
A third dose can be received by an immunocompromised person as soon as 28 days after the second dose and people in this category have been able to access the third dose for several weeks now.
Doses following the third dose are not recommended at this stage as ATAGI believes people whose immune systems don’t respond to the third shot may not respond to further doses.
The TGA’s reasoning for providing a third dose to all adult Australians, not just immunocompromised people, is that the booster shot is deemed safe and effective for protecting people against COVID-19 and could improve immunity in the broader community.
Booster shots are already being provided overseas in the United States, and countries across Europe and the United Kingdom.
Advocacy organisation, People With Disability Australia (PWDA), has been calling for people with disability to be eligible for a booster vaccine to keep up their immunity, as they may be more vulnerable to COVID-19 than people without disability.
While PWDA welcomes the booster shot decision, Chief Executive Officer Sebastian Zagarella says people with disability should have immediate access to a booster, rather than having to wait six months after their second dose.
"Many people with disability require the extra protection that a third jab provides because research shows that even after two doses of the vaccine many remain clinically vulnerable to the virus," Mr Zagarella says.
Even though severely immunocompromised people have been able to receive their third dose more immediately, PWDA President Samantha Connor says that group would have only included an estimated 500,000 Australians.
“It’s not inclusive of the vast majority of people with disability who require a third jab because research shows that even after two doses of the vaccine many remain clinically vulnerable to the virus,” she says.
“People with disability need to be given the best shot for a safe and healthy future and in this case it’s a third shot of the vaccine.”
With the third dose now set to be available to all adults, Ms Connor says it is also important for people with disability to know how to protect themselves from COVID-19 in areas where pandemic restrictions are being eased.
“COVID is running free now in NSW and will soon be widely circulating around Australia. There are specific actions that people with disability and their support workers can take to minimise the risks to their wellbeing and an information campaign should be rapidly developed and rolled out to ensure our community is effectively informed about these strategies,” she says.
“Things like how to get access to third jabs, negotiating safe in-home support, what our rights are in relation to accessing services and venues, how to access relevant data so we can undertake our own risk assessments, and alternative ways for demonstrating vaccination status for those people who have issues using digital technologies.
“These are all important matters for helping people with disability navigate their way in our new world.”
Mr Zagarella adds that the Government should prioritise all people with disability for the remainder of the vaccine rollout and booster program, as well as disability support workers.
He also believes people with disability should have access to the vaccine brand of their choice and that there is more to be done to vaccinate people living in group settings.
"It’s encouraging to see vaccination rates increasing among NDIS participants as well as people with disability in some residential settings (Supported Independent Living, Specialist Disability Accommodation and nursing homes) which are now above the national average<' Mr Zagarella says.
"But there are at least 20,000 more people with disability living in residential settings who haven’t been counted in the official numbers and we don’t know their vaccination status. If you take into account private homes and those living in jails, hospitals, boarding houses and hostels, there are far more.
"We hold serious concerns about the welfare of people in congregate facilities all over Australia.
"Clearly there’s still lots more that needs to be done to keep all people with disability safe, such as improving access to in-home vaccinations."