If you were hoping to receive an early Christmas present, you may be in luck: the federal government announced that updated COVID-19 vaccines will be available starting December 11.
- The Therapeutic Goods Administration approved new Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in October
- Experts are awaiting a rollout plan given the current wave of COVID-19 sweeping across Australia.
- New vaccines will offer better protection against Pirola and Eris sub-variants
This means those who roll up their sleeves could have boosted their protection against serious illness and hospitalization by Christmas Day.
Experts say it’s essential given Australia is in the midst of a new wave of COVID-19 that could see millions of people infected (or reinfected) over the coming months, according to one of the leading infectious disease experts in the country.
The composition of the two new vaccines, already available in the United States, is different from those you may have already received.
But that’s what makes them more effective right now.
Let’s unpack the details.
How are the new vaccines different?
The new vaccines are monovalent.
This means they are designed to specifically target a variant of COVID-19.
This differs from the most recent boosters which were bivalent, designed to protect against both the original strain of COVID-19 and the Omicron variant.
But COVID-19 has mutated several times since Omicron arrived in Australia in 2021, and we no longer see the original strain first detected in Wuhan.
Now, Omicron sub-variants EG.5 (nicknamed Eris) and BA.2.86 (nicknamed Pirola) are circulating in Australia.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says it is “monitoring” Pirola but has classified Eris as a variant of interest given its prevalence.
The new vaccines do not specifically target these strains because they were designed for another sub-variant of Omicron called XBB.1.5 (sometimes known as Kraken).
But this strain is very closely related to Pirola and Eris, so the XBB.1.5 vaccines will provide cross-immunity, says Paul Griffin, director of infectious diseases at Mater Health Services.
“It fits much better with what’s happening right now.”
In addition to the United States, these vaccines have already been approved in Canada, Japan, Singapore and Europe.
Why move away from previous vaccines?
The WHO has recommended that COVID-19 vaccine formulations move away from the original strain.
Infectious disease expert Brendan Crabb told ABC’s News Daily that if vaccines continue to focus on the original virus, people will develop immunity to an “irrelevant” strain of COVID-19.
Dr. Griffin says there is also a risk that if we continue to build our immunity against the original strain, we may actually hinder our immune response to new vaccine components targeting the subvariants.
Indeed, “immunological memory” (which protects us from a pathogen long after vaccination) can interfere with the development of updated immune responses.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunization (ATAGI) says all currently available COVID-19 vaccines are expected to provide benefit, but new vaccines are “preferred”.
“Available data suggest that monovalent XBB vaccines provide slightly improved protection against severe disease compared to older vaccines,” the group said in a statement.
Dr. Griffin says people should not take this new advice to mean that previous vaccines were ineffective – they were simply designed to target the virus at a different stage in its evolution.
What will be available?
The two major American pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna manufactured the new monovalent vaccines.
Like their previous COVID-19 vaccines, they are both mRNA vaccines. This means they use strands of genetic code to instruct the body to build spike proteins, which then trigger an immune response.
Here is what will be offered in first doses or boosters:
- Low-dose Pfizer XBB.1.5 vaccine for children aged five to 12
- A higher dose of Pfizer’s XBB.1.5 for those over 12
- Moderna’s XBB.1.5 vaccine for ages 12 and older.
There is no monovalent XBB.1.5 vaccine registered for use in children aged six months to four years. The original Pfizer vaccine is still the only formulation available for this age group.
The new vaccines were approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) in October, but ATAGI was also expected to evaluate them and advise Health Minister Mark Butler on their use.
Last night Mr Butler accepted ATAGI’s advice and announced the rollout in December.
“These new vaccines will help protect Australians against current strains of COVID-19 and demonstrate the Government’s continued commitment to providing access to the latest and most effective vaccines,” he said in a statement.
But it should be noted that existing bivalent vaccines will still be available. This contrasts with the situation in the United States, which withdrew the bivalent Pfizer and Moderna vaccines from the market in September after approving their new cousin XBB.1.5.
Can I see her?
There are no changes to the current ATAGI vaccine eligibility recommendations, which you can check online.
However, ATAGI does not recommend receiving this updated vaccine if you are up to date on your 2023 boosters (or if you received your primary vaccination less than six months ago), as you should still be well protected against serious illness .
When will I be able to get the new photo?
The government says doctors and pharmacies can now order the new vaccines which will be delivered from December 11.
Providers who receive their orders early, however, do not need to wait until December 11 to begin administering them.
Doctor Griffin says he welcomes the long-awaited rollout timeline, but wishes it was “a little bit sooner.”
It is unclear whether providers will initially receive small volumes of vaccine through a drip or if there is already a significant supply in Australia.
Why are vaccines still important?
Over the next four to five months, Professor Crabb estimates between 3 million and 5 million Australians will contract COVID-19 if nothing is done to curb the spread.
He says tens of thousands of Australians could die prematurely as a result and there could be between 50,000 and 100,000 cases of long COVID-19.
Although the CEO of the Burnet Institute acknowledges that COVID-19 is no longer an “emergency,” he believes people are being too casual.
“If we do not make a deliberate effort as a world to reduce the volume of transmission, it is difficult to see an end to this ongoing problem.
“It would be fantastic if the (new) vaccine was in people’s arms before they encountered the virus.”
Dr Griffin says he understands the current surge will cause a lot of fatigue and anger, especially as it coincides with Christmas.
For this reason, he says the government needs to create an effective education campaign so people understand how these new vaccines are different and why they are worth getting.
“I think for a lot of people, (the reminders) have become overwhelming…we need to have a really good strategy so we can work on some of these information gaps and increase the adoption rate.”
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