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The UK's preparing to administer COVID vaccine booster shots, and Australia is set to follow suit

ABC Health logo ABC Health 3/07/2021

The UK has become the first nation in the world to plan a third round of COVID-19 vaccinations for vulnerable Britons, with a booster program that would shore up resistance to the virus ahead of winter. 

Preparations to roll out the vaccine to elderly populations from September are awaiting final medical advice, but the move marks a step in the global vaccine race as the UK turns its attention towards providing ongoing resistance to COVID-19 and new variants.

And while the UK is significantly further ahead of Australia in its vaccination rollout, officials in Australia are already flagging a similar program will be needed to deliver a third shot of vaccines into Australians' arms too.

Why are booster shots needed?

The UK's new Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, said the government was planning booster shots to ensure vulnerable people were protected during the northern hemisphere winter.

However, the advice was subject to change as more information became available about the ongoing efficacy of the vaccines already administered and the effects of a third booster shot.

"Our first COVID-19 vaccination program is restoring freedom in this country, and our booster program will protect this freedom," Mr Javid said.

The interim advice recommends booster shots be offered in two tranches, first to high-risk individuals like those over 70, and then to people over 50 and other at-risk groups.

It also reflects the UK's goal of learning to live with the virus rather than eradicate it, predicting that as "social mixing and social contact return towards pre-pandemic norms" COVID-19 will circulate in the community like the flu and other respiratory diseases.

Miles Davenport, from the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales, said studies suggested the antibody response caused by COVID-19 vaccines and infection diminished over time.

"After infection, there definitely appears to be a decline in the immune response over the first year or so, Professor Davenport said.

"It's probably expected that that decline will slow with time, but that's normal.

"We don't really know the long-term half-life, but over the first six to eight months it seems like many of these responses have a half-life of the order of three or four months."

UK first to move on booster shots

The UK advice does not make a recommendation on which vaccines should be used as boosters, and final guidance will not be issued until more data on the lasting effects of the current vaccination program becomes available.

UNSW epidemiologist Mary-Louise McLaws said the rollout of third shots would be watched keenly around the world.

"It's very early to start suggesting we need to start doing boosters," she said.

"We will be learning a lot from this because they'll be documenting … their antibody and T-cell response."

Professor McLaws said western countries would face conundrums over whether to prioritise giving third jabs to their own residents or assist the global vaccination effort.

"Should we not be thinking of looking after somebody else, and hoping that our immune system has been well primed and boosted anyway?" she said.

Nearly 85 per cent of UK residents over the age of 18 have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine and 62.4 per cent of UK adults are fully vaccinated. 

That puts it well ahead of Australia's vaccination rollout, which has seen 8.7 per cent of Australians over 16 fully vaccinated and 30.4 per cent receive at least one shot.

Announcing a four-phase plan through which Australia would ditch lockdowns and open to the world if vaccination rates are high enough, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia's booster program was in development.

"We will prepare now, as we already are, the vaccine booster program," he said.

Professor Davenport said it was likely that there would be some form of ongoing vaccination for COVID-19 in Australia, and that vaccines could be updated to better combat variants.

"We're very likely to need ongoing vaccination … both because of the waning [antibody levels] and the variation in the virus," he said.

"It's quite likely that, like the flu, we might be getting a different vaccine next year."

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