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Atagi expected to update advice on fifth dose of Covid vaccine within weeks

Australia’s national vaccine advisory body is expected to decide within weeks if a fifth Covid vaccine dose will be made available to more Australians this year.

Meanwhile, infectious disease physicians have urged federal and state governments to reprioritise vaccine awareness campaigns, warning the “anti-vaccine lobby seems to have the floor”.

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (Atagi) is assessing this year’s Covid vaccination plan, with a decision on whether to expand fifth dose eligibility soon. The doses are restricted to severely immunocompromised adults.

But multiple experts have raised concerns about relatively low third and fourth dose vaccination rates. They believe this is caused by perceptions the pandemic is over, that Covid is no worse than having a cold, or confusion about health advice.

Just over 44% of eligible Australians have received their fourth booster shot, according to the latest government figures. The chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, recently admitted that figure could be higher, but said rates among the over-65 category were higher, at 76%.

Associate professor Paul Griffin, an infectious disease expert at the University of Queensland, said pandemic fatigue was “a really big problem” slowing booster rates.

“In many ways, the discussions about vaccination are getting more heated and it’s getting harder for people to know where to find reliable, sensible and balanced information,” Griffin said.

“Early on, I think we perhaps overdid the risk communication and it dominated our news cycle and then almost overnight, we pivoted to being excessively reassuring and downplaying the risk.

“We need to get the basics right. As we see more opposition to simple things like masks, testing or staying home, that’s where vaccination becomes even more important.”

Earlier this month the independent group of experts, OzSage, warned Covid was third-highest cause of death in Australia. It predicted that trend would continue unless federal and state governments changed their policy settings.

Prof Raina MacIntyre, a member of OzSage and a director at the Kirby Institute, said governments must focus on hitting 90% third and fourth booster rates.

“The anti-vaccine lobby seems to have the floor and more proactive health promotion around vaccines is needed,” MacIntyre said.

“For example, there have been many sudden cardiac deaths in younger adults [reported] in the media. Silence from governments around the substantial effects of Covid on the heart have allowed the anti-vaccine lobby to falsely blame vaccines for these deaths, when Covid is a more likely culprit.”

Prof Michael Toole, a research fellow at the Burnet Institute, also called for an overhaul of public messaging to boost vaccination rates.

“Before anything is done, there needs to be a different tone of messaging from governments. We should stop talking about the pandemic in the past tense,” Toole said.

“More than 1,000 Australians have died in the first three weeks of 2023 from Covid. That’s more than during the same period last year and it took 45 weeks to get to that figure in 2021.”

MacIntyre said she supported expanding eligibility for a fifth shot, but cautioned against campaigns that may encourage people to get their booster in time for winter.

“Many people may have avoided Covid or its complications had they been allowed a fifth dose late last year, before the large summer wave we faced,” MacIntyre said.

“Unlike influenza, Covid is not a seasonal infection, so messaging about winter boosters is misleading. In fact, the largest wave we have had was in summer 2021/22.”

Late last week, the medical regulator gave provisional approval for the first booster shots that target two Omicron variants, BA.4 and BA.5.

A booster for the BA.1 variant and original bivalent vaccine – which is when the original virus strain is included in the vaccine – was approved late last year.

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