Australia should look at Israel to learn how to deal with Covid-19 once the country has achieved a high vaccination rate, a leading diseases expert has said.
Professor Tony Blakely of the University of Melbourne said Australia can ‘learn a lot’ from Israel which under one of the fastest jab rollouts in the world has vaccinated 78 per cent of over 12s, the majority with Pfizer, but is suffering a surge in cases.
Australia has targeted a 70 per cent vaccination rate to start living more freely and without lockdown; and 80 per cent to get back to ‘normal’ life without masks, social distancing and QR codes.
However, last Sunday, Israel brought back restrictions including vaccination certificates or negative coronavirus tests to enter a range of public spaces such as restaurants and bars, cultural and sports venues, hotels and gyms.
A medic administers a booster shot of the coronavirus vaccine to a woman in Tel Aviv, Israel
The nation of 9million is recording about 6,000 Covid-19 cases a day and 120 deaths a week.
Many of the infected are unvaccinated but 59 per cent of Covid-19 patients in hospital on August 15 were fully jabbed, with 87 per cent of them over 60.
This is largely because data shows the effectiveness of the Pfizer jab wanes over time. In response, Israel is now rolling out booster shots to anyone over 50 who had their second dose more than five months ago.
Professor Blakely said Australia and other countries around the world are learning from the Israeli experience.
‘First of all, it’s a bit gloomy, we can’t escape that,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.
‘They’re seeing waning immunity I believe mostly amongst the elderly but we’re learning as we go. After time the virus can take off again.’
Professor Blakely said the data shows booster shots are required to increase protection and said there are two options – either use the same vaccine for the third dose or mix and match.
‘What we’ll increasingly do is we’ll use new mRNA vaccines to cover new variants,’ he said.
Israeli women are pictured wearing face masks in the street in Jerusalem on Thursday
This would involve giving someone who had two shots of Pfizer a shot of Moderna while people who had received AstraZeneca could get Pfizer as their booster.
‘As soon as we’re fully vaccinated we’d immediately go back and boost AstraZeneca recipients and offer them Pfizer,’ he said.
‘There is emerging evidence that you get a really good protection if you mix vaccines.
‘After Christmas we’d be boosting all people over 60 and all people less than 60 who’ve had AstraZeneca,’ he said.
‘And then we’d open the international borders and hopefully be OK.’
Professor Blakely said the world will try out different combinations of vaccines to work out which gives the best protection.
‘I’m confident we’ll find a way to mix and match mRNA vaccines with each other or maybe people who’ve had Pfizer will be offered AstraZeneca because that comes in from another angle. We’ve got a lot to learn,’ he said.
Palestinian women are pictured wearing face masks in the street in Jerusalem on Thursday
‘I’m confident we’ll find a way to win the arms race against the virus. But it’s not going to be smooth sailing and Israel is another example of that.’
Professor Blakely warned that western nations will face backlash from the World Health Organisation for rolling out boosters while people in poor countries have not had a single dose.
He said that booster shots were ‘not the best policy’ from a global perspective because new dangerous variants could emerge in unvaccinated nations.
‘The real threat to humanity is this virus mutating again to become completely resistant to vaccines and the chance of that goes up in direct proportion to the amount of infections across the planet,’ he said.
However, the US and European nations are already planning to roll out booster shots, so Australia will likely follow suit.
In the likely event that booster shots are recommended in Australia – where 28.2 per cent are fully vaccinated so far – the Prime Minister has ordered 85 million doses of Pfizer to arrive in 2022 and 2023.
The first batch will enter the country in the first three months of next year, allowing the first vaccinated Australians – who had their second doses in March 2021 – to take a booster shot a year later.
HOW LONG DO THE VACCINES LAST?
Pfizer CEO Albert Boula confirmed in July that the effectiveness of the vaccine does steadily diminish, but said it reaches about 84 per cent effectiveness at six months.
The jab is most effective between one week and two months after the second dose, and drops by an average of 6 per cent every two months.
Meanwhile, studies of the Moderna vaccine show 94 per cent effectiveness six months after the second dose.
Studies on AstraZeneca indicate that a single dose induced immunity for at least one year, with an even stronger immune response after either a late second dose or a third dose.
A delay of up to 45 weeks between the first and second jab was found to produce a very strong response, or a third jab after six months.
Source: AstraZeneca, Gavi Vaccine Alliance, The Lancet
The Government has also ordered 51 million doses of the American Novavax vaccine – which is expected to be approved and rolled out in the second half of this year – and 15 million doses of booster or variant-specific versions of the Moderna vaccine.
Both could act as booster shots.
Health Minister Greg Hunt told 2GB radio last week: ‘The supplies are very deep and strong. The expectation is that if a booster were required – and frankly, it’s far more likely than not on all the advice we have – it would be about a year after you had your vaccination.
‘So, no decision yet, but the preliminary medical advice is that it will be in the order of 12 months after your first jab. But it’s not a final decision.’
Young Australians wait in line for a Pfizer jab at the Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney on Thursday
Professor Blakely also said some restrictions may still be required in Australia after 80 per cent of people are vaccinated, such as vaccine passports to enter venues.
He said this would be a ‘good risk reduction strategy’ but was ‘no panacea’ because vaccinated people can still catch and spread the virus even with fewer symptoms.
‘I think it’s a dumb idea because it gives a false sense of security and is going to be problematic to administer.
‘But it will be used because it gives people an incentive to get vaccinated,’ he said.
Professor Blakely warned that contact tracing and testing will ‘probably’ be in place for years to come, unless governments aim for herd immunity by letting infections circulate freely while vaccinations and boosters are administered.
‘If that was our strategy – and I don’t think we’re ready for that yet – we’d basically want to get it over and done with as quickly as possible,’ he said.
Health department’s full statement on booster shots
‘The Government has accepted the medical advice of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) that additional or booster doses beyond the two-dose course are not currently recommended.
‘The Government is actively monitoring this evidence and has strong working relationships with a wide range of international agencies to discuss the development of COVID-19 vaccines.
‘Australia is well prepared for booster vaccines if they are required. This has been taken into account in the purchase agreements already in place.
‘The Australian Government has secured 60 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine for 2022 and 25 million doses for 2023. This is in addition to the 40 million Pfizer doses being delivered in 2021.
‘The Government has also secured 25 million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, including 15 million doses of booster or variant-specific versions of the vaccine.
‘The Government also has an Advance Purchased Agreement with Novavax for 51 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine. The Novavax protein-subunit based COVID-19 vaccine could be used as a booster dose.’
Australia can learn from Israel’s Covid-19 experience as booster vaccines are rolled out