New Zealand will bring forward booster doses to fight the threat of the highly infectious Omicron variant of COVID-19.
It has been restricting booster shots to those who got their vaccine six months or more ago but will shift that to four months from the start of 2022.
This will mean about 82 per cent of those already double vaccinated will be eligible for a booster shot before the New Zealand Government looks to reopen the borders at the end of February.
COVID-19 Minister Chris Hipkins said the emerging evidence was that the booster provided far stronger protection from Omicron than the two-shot course.
“While two doses is likely to hold a good degree of protection against severe disease from Omicron, a third dose is likely to offer great protection against transmission of COVID-19 and reducing the chance of more serious infections,” Mr Hipkins said.
“The advice from the COVID-19 Technical Advisory Group is that shortening the period between the second and booster doses of the Pfizer vaccine is an appropriate and pragmatic step and is in line with what other countries are doing.”
“The shorter timeframe will start in January and we’ll continue to follow health advice if it recommends the gap in doses can and should reduce further.”
Ministry of Health chief science advisor Dr Ian Town said it was imperative to keep Omicron out as long as possible as the booster appeared to be very effective at stopping hospitalisation.
Border reopening pushed back, jabs for kids
New Zealand was planning to allow fully vaccinated Kiwis and residents to travel into the country from Australia without going through managed isolation from mid-January.
That has been pushed back until the end of February to give the country more time to give far more Kiwis time to get their booster shot – with about 82 per cent of over-12s eligible for a booster at that point.
The New Zealand Government has also announced that vaccinations for five- to 11-year-olds will begin from January 17.
The suite of measures is designed to combat the newly dominant Omicron variant, which is not yet been found in the community in New Zealand.
“All evidence points to Omicron being the most transmissible variant yet,” Mr Hipkins said.
“But experts still don’t know how severe it is. So while it’s sweeping the globe at a bewildering speed and appears to be the dominant variant, how sick it makes people and the impact it has on health systems is not yet fully understood.”
Those coming in through managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) will also see other changes.
MIQ has been extended to 10 days from the current seven.
Also, pre-departure tests will now only be accepted if they were taken within the last 48 hours, instead of the last 72.
The news comes as New Zealand’s community cases continue to fall.
There were just 28 new community cases today and no new Omicron cases in managed isolation.
New Zealand’s overall vaccine rate is high compared to many peer nations but only about one in 20 over-12s has had a booster shot.
Around 360,000 people are now eligible for their booster but just 228,000 have taken up the opportunity.