Australia will roll out a fifth dose of COVID-19 vaccine later this month to all citizens aged 18 and above who have not contracted coronavirus or been vaccinated in the past six months, Health Minister Mark Butler said on Wednesday.
The decision expands eligibility for the booster shot to include about 14 million people, more than half the country's population, who will be offered Omicron variant-specific vaccines from Feb. 20, Butler said.
Only severely immuno-compromised people had been recommended to take a fifth dose until now, the advice being to receive the booster three months after their fourth shot.
Australia, which is among the most heavily vaccinated countries against the coronavirus, has so far administered two vaccine doses to 95% of people above 16. This has helped Australia to keep its COVID numbers relatively low compared with other developed economies.
But there has been a slow uptake of booster shots, with official data showing around 72% having had a third dose and only 44% their fourth one.
Butler said people above 65 years remained at high risk of severe illness and death from the coronavirus and so urged them to take their fifth shot if they are eligible.
The rollout of the fifth shot will help "deal with what inevitably will be the next phase of the next wave of COVID sometime over the course of 2023," Butler said.
The government also has made the fourth dose eligible for all aged 18-29 after Australia's immunisation advisory group updated its recommendations. Only people above 30 or the immuno-compromised group were recommended for a fourth dose previously.
(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)