Booster gap shortened to three months – Expert Reaction

Booster doses of the Covid-19 vaccine will be available to anyone who has had at least a three-month gap since their second vaccine dose.

Replacing the current four-month lag, the changes take effect this Friday. This means over three million Kiwis in total can get a booster shot from this weekend.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the news. 

Dr Dion O’Neale, Principal Investigator, Te Pūnaha Matatini; and Senior Lecturer, Physics Department, University of Auckland, comments:

“The shortening to three months for the period before people are eligible for getting a booster is a big step in improving access to one of the most important tools in keeping people protected from COVID-19.

“Data from the UK Health Security Agency indicates that for people three or more months after a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, their protection against symptomatic infection is under 20%. This jumps to over 60% vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic infection after a booster dose. By reducing the interval between a 2nd and a 3rd dose, we are significantly increasing the proportion of the population who are currently able to get a booster and take advantage of that protection.

“If we see good uptake rates for booster doses, with people getting their third jabs as soon as they are eligible, then that will help us to limit the rate of growth of the current Omicron outbreak, in addition to increasing people’s protection from severe symptoms and hospitalisation.

“Slower vaccination rates for Māori during the initial vaccine roll-out meant that a four-month wait would have left many ineligible for a booster over the next month when we are expecting Omicron cases to grow significantly. Reducing to a three-month interval to become eligible for a booster can help with not leaving people unprotected during this period.

“It is also important to note that eligibility is not the same thing as access. If the issues that led to slower uptake for some groups during the initial vaccine roll-out are not addressed for delivering boosters then we risk seeing the same people left with higher risk of infection and the possibility of severe health consequences.”

Conflict of interest statement: “I, along with others from Te Pūnaha Matatini, am funded by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet to provide advice on the COVID response and from a Health Research Council grant to look at equity related to COVID in Aotearoa.”

Professor Michael Plank, Te Pūnaha Matatini and University of Canterbury, comments:

“It is excellent news that the gap between the second dose and the booster has been shortened to 3 months, meaning 1 million additional New Zealanders are now eligible to get their booster dose. With Omicron, getting the booster significantly reduces your own risk of getting seriously ill. It also reduces our collective risk that hospitals will be overwhelmed with Covid patients.

“To manage the impacts of Omicron, we need to boost as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. It takes a week or two for your immune system to respond to the vaccine dose. In a couple of weeks’ time, it’s likely we will have much higher infection rates in the community. So the time to get the booster is now. If you are eligible, please make a plan to get your booster and encourage your whānau and friends to do the same.”

Conflict of interest statement: Michael Plank is partly funded by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for research on mathematical modelling of COVID-19.

Dr Dianne Sika-Paotonu, Immunologist, Associate Dean (Pacific), Head of University of Otago Wellington Pacific Office, and Senior Lecturer, Pathology & Molecular Medicine, University of Otago Wellington, comments:

“Today’s announcement is welcome news for many including some of our most vulnerable in Aotearoa New Zealand, who have been unable to receive their COVID-19 vaccine boosters based on eligibility set by the arrangements of the original COVID-19 vaccination roll-out in 2021.

“In the face of an OMICRON outbreak, the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine boosters must be rolled out as quickly as possible with the appropriate prioritisation and delivery taking into account our most vulnerable communities – emerging inequities already evident must also be addressed moving forward. 

“Increasing COVID-19 case numbers will put added pressure onto our health and other support systems in Aotearoa New Zealand and we need to do everything we can to keep people safe, including our most vulnerable – and prevent our hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.

“Our children, tamariki and tamaiki are also still getting their paediatric Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines. The inequities that have arisen with respect to vaccination rates for Māori and Pacific children, tamariki and tamaiki must also be addressed quickly.

“Evidence has clearly indicated that Māori and Pacific peoples and their whanau, aiaga and kainga remain vulnerable to being disproportionately impacted and affected by COVID-19 and therefore require focus and prioritisation with respect to COVID-19 vaccination, boosters, testing and prevention efforts.

“An equity focus that reduces barriers and builds trust, will help everyone get the help and services they need at this time. Equity has been demonstrated with Māori and Pacific leadership and our Māori and Pacific teams working tirelessly to drive up general vaccination levels and protect their communities, whānau and kāinga with approaches that reduce barriers and build trust for people – this work must be supported to continue.”

No conflict of interest declared.

Dr David Welch, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Computational Evolution and School of Computer Science, University of Auckland, comments:

“Reducing the interval for boosters from four months to three months is a sensible move and it will give people the ability to get the booster before encountering Omicron in the community.

“Booster shots provide significant extra protection against sickness and serious disease. They also are effective at preventing infection altogether so have a protective effect on those around you.

“The government and the whole community should focus on getting everyone eligible booster shots and getting children vaccinated at high rates over the next few weeks while Omicron cases are still at relatively low levels. We have the ability to administer over 80,000 daily doses for a sustained period and we should aim to achieve at least that. This will greatly increase the immunity we have in the population and reduce the impacts of the Omicron outbreak.”

No conflict of interest.

Dr Matthew Hobbs, Co-Director, GeoHealth Laboratory, and Senior Lecturer in Public Health, School of Health Sciences, University of Canterbury, comments:

These comments are extracted from The Conversation, coauthored by Dr Hobbs (published earlier today before the booster gap news)

“Vaccination is especially important in New Zealand as we have had minimal prior exposure to COVID-19 in the community. In New Zealand, 67% of eligible people have now received their booster, which offers high levels of protection from hospitalisation and death. Boosted individuals are up to 92% less likely to be hospitalised with Omicron, compared with unvaccinated people.

“Omicron is a “double-edged sword”. It is vastly more transmissible but less severe. However, it is not a mild infection and there is no guarantee the next variant will be less severe. Healthcare workers are already over-burdened and exhausted from previous outbreaks, which have distracted from other services and exacerbated entrenched inequities.

“Also, as children return to school, we need equitable vaccinations and ventilation. Data out of Australia indicate children aged five to 11 tolerated the vaccine well, with fewer side effects than adults. Unfortunately, our analysis, along with other evidence, documents a concerning trend with lower childhood vaccination rates for Māori and Pasifika, as well as large variation between regions.

“This is concerning as some countries, including the US, have seen increases in childhood hospitalisation rates for COVID-19. In the UK, one in eight pupils have missed school as COVID-related absences rise.”

No conflict of interest declared.