COVID-19 booster shots won’t be brought forward after Australia’s health experts determined a sooner third dose provided no additional protection against the emerging Omicron variant.
It comes with Australia set to pass 500,000 COVID top-up shots administered since the third doses were approved for use in this country.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation determined people will still have to wait six months to receive their booster dose.
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly said there was little evidence bringing forward the booster shot would provide a greater level of protection against the new Omicron variant.
“Is [Omicron] more severe? We don’t know yet. But at the moment, there is the evidence that it’s mild or the same,” he said in Canberra on Friday.
“I would stress that it’s very early days. It is only in the last few weeks this has been circulating in South Africa and elsewhere, and there is that delay from cases to hospitalisations and deaths.”
There have been 10 confirmed cases of Omicron in Australia, nine of them in NSW and the last in the Northern Territory.
NSW was investigating possible community spread of the variant on Friday. A student at a western Sydney high school who has not travelled overseas recently has been identified as the state’s ninth Omicron case – with NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard confirming
investigations continued into whether two other virus-positive students from the school also had the variant.
“It is a challenge,” he said.
“I think transmission is always a concern but we again need to keep it in perspective at the moment. Worldwide, there is not a clarity around whether this particular variant is going to cause us anywhere near the problems that the earlier variants caused us.”
Confirmation of the cases is expected later on Friday.
Globally, more than 400 Omicron cases have been identified in 30 countries.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said work was still being done to investigate Omicron.
“The earliest advice, and it is too early to draw a final conclusion, is it may be more transmissible,” Mr Hunt told the Seven Network.
“The vaccines are likely, still, to have good protection, but we do need more information and it could be milder.”
Mr Hunt said it was likely future variants would also be detected, but less severe than some of the first strains detected.
Australian authorities met virtually on Thursday night with their South African counterparts about Omicron, which emerged in the region.
“They are seeing a rise in hospitalisations there. But even hospitalisations they are seeing with the Omicron variant are not any more severe than previous,” Professor Kelly said.
He said more information on the effectiveness of treatments and vaccines was needed, but South Africa was unlikely to provide such information given the low rate of vaccination there.
Meanwhile, the federal government has approved another $540 million for the pandemic response.
This includes extending access to bulk-billed COVID-19 tests, funding for the health department’s National Incident Centre and $48 million for medical research.
Money will also go towards the aged care sector and workforce capacity as well as continuing the vaccine rollout in rural and remote areas.
It comes as 87.7 per cent of Australians over 16 have been fully vaccinated, with 92.7 per cent having had a first dose.
There have been 495,000 booster shots administered, and is likely to surpass half a million in the next day.
The NT had its first COVID-19 death on Friday, an unvaccinated woman from a remote Indigenous community.
The virus has been detected in three remote communities in the Top End. Chief Minister Michael Gunner said it was “very unlikely to be the last time we have to deliver such news”.
Also on Friday, Victoria had 1188 more infections and 11 deaths.
NSW had 337 cases, while there were four in the ACT.