Until now, we often thought that being fully vaccinated meant getting two shots.
Then we were all encouraged to get a “booster”, or an extra dose of vaccine.
Now, the panel of experts advising the federal government on vaccines has signaled that two shots alone won’t be enough.
ATAGI is completely getting rid of the concept of being “fully vaccinated” and saying that a third dose is needed to be considered “up to date” with vaccinations.
But what does that actually mean – and what will happen next?
We take a look.
What is ATAGI’s advice?
It is now recommended that anyone 16 years and older receive a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to maintain an “up-to-date” vaccination status.
The booster dose is recommended from three months after the last primary dose. But if someone doesn’t get a reminder within six months, their status will change to overdue.
Advice differs slightly between groups:
- Boosters are not yet recommended for children and teenagers from 5 to 15 years old. They will be considered “up to date” after their primary vaccination
- It is recommended that severely immunocompromised people aged 5 years and older receive a third dose of a vaccine during their primary vaccination. A fourth booster dose is recommended for people aged 16 and over, but is not required to stay “up to date”
- People who have had a COVID-19 infection should still follow the advice, but can delay their next injection until four months after their infection
You can mix and match vaccine brands for your booster shots, as long as they have been approved by the TGA for use as a booster.
Will the three doses become mandatory?
Now that ATAGI has given this advice, it is up to state and territory governments to decide what to do with it.
Companies could also decide for themselves whether an “up-to-date” vaccination status will be necessary for their workers and customers.
The national cabinet has already agreed that it will not impose nationwide recalls, except for older workers.
Some states like South Australia and Victoria have already made three strokes mandatory for workers in certain sectors, like healthcare.
The Premier of Victoria has signaled that the state may extend its vaccination mandate to require three doses for visiting certain public places, such as restaurants.
But when asked on Friday, Victoria’s health minister did not say if any changes were coming.
South Australia’s premier also said the government would ‘take it all [ATAGI’s advice] into account” before making any decision.
As of Friday afternoon, other states and territories had yet to announce firm plans or changes to their mandate rules.
ATAGI recommended ensuring that the new “up-to-date” advice comes into effect by the end of March, to give people enough time to adjust to any changes.
Why is a booster dose recommended?
Experts and governments have strongly recommended booster doses, especially for people over 60 or with conditions that could put them at risk of COVID-19 infection.
But still – less than half of the eligible population is covered.
And it worries health authorities that we are not ready for a potential spike in COVID-19 cases in the winter.
Vaccines help reduce the risk of infection, but their effectiveness decreases over time, especially after five or six months. Many Australians most vulnerable to COVID-19 were also among the first to become eligible for vaccination, so more time would have passed since their second dose.
The Omicron variant has also “changed the landscape” when it comes to vaccinations, according to Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious disease physician and associate professor at the Australian National University.
The variant is both more transmissible and more likely to evade vaccines.
“We have found that with Omicron, if you have received two doses of a vaccine, your ability to avoid symptomatic infection is quite low, approximately 20 weeks after receiving a second dose of vaccine,” he said. .
“You still have about 44% protection against hospitalization, which is pretty good, but a booster helps both protect against hospitalization and symptomatic infections.”
Nancy Baxter, director of the School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne, believes ATAGI’s new guidance is the right move.
“[Three doses] is really what we need to make sure our immunity is as strong as possible against COVID,” she said.
What vaccination rules will apply to arrivals abroad?
Australia will open its borders to all international arrivals from February 21, provided they are doubly vaccinated.
And although ATAGI’s new advice was approved by the national cabinet at a meeting on Thursday afternoon, it will not apply to international travelers arriving in Australia.
But again, how this works in practice will likely depend on each state and territory.
For example, if a state mandates a third shot to access hospitality venues, international and interstate travelers may need to comply if they also wish to access those venues.
Dr Senanayake said it would be “less confusing” if the same advice applied to everyone.
What does this mean for businesses?
Industry groups largely await state and territory guidance.
The Australian Retailers Association, an industry body representing more than 100,000 stores, said it has “regular discussions with state and territory governments who will ultimately decide on any changes to their vaccine mandate requirements.” .
“It is important that we have clarity and national consistency and that we continue to see community restrictions ease as we achieve higher vaccination rates and live with COVID,” said its chief executive. Paul Zara.
“This means an eventual consistent removal of QR code checks, reduced isolation periods and no return to in-store vaccination checks, which has been a very stressful requirement for retail teams and customers and led to a huge increase in customer abuse.”
The Business Council of Australia, an association which includes chief executives from various sectors, has also been contacted for comment.