COVID-19 vaccine for children approved for new year rollout

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Five- to 11-year-olds can be vaccinated against COVID-19 from early January after Pfizer’s product received final approval, paving the way for the rollout to this age group to be well underway before school returns next year.

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation has recommended five- to 11-year-olds receive two doses of the Pfizer vaccine eight weeks apart to protect them against the coronavirus, and the federal government says bookings will be available within weeks.

Australia’s vaccine experts have given Pfizer the final tick of approval for five- to 11-year-olds.Credit:AP

“This will bring great relief to so many mums and dads, who now have a choice on what’s best for their kids. They can have peace of mind knowing this has the tick from the best medical regulators in the world,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

National cabinet is meeting on Friday for an update on the Omicron strain and the plan for international borders, with restrictions currently due to lift for overseas students, skilled migrants and other select visa holders next Wednesday.

The group will also discuss the vaccination program including children’s vaccines, with the rollout for five- to 11-year-olds slated to start on January 10 and continue through the first term of 2022. There are about 2.3 million children in that cohort across the country, including 716,460 in NSW and 578,499 in Victoria.

Most young children who get COVID-19 experience mild or no symptoms but some can be sick for months from coronavirus-related complications. Health Minister Greg Hunt said vaccinating young children protected them and helped prevent them from passing on the virus to their younger siblings or grandparents.

“We encourage all parents to vaccinate their children against COVID-19,” he said.

Bookings for children can be made from late December and vaccinations will be available through GPs, Aboriginal health services, pharmacies and state and territory clinics, and providers will be able to order doses in coming weeks.

Before the rollout can begin, healthcare providers will receive childhood-specific vaccination training, and the vaccine, in special paediatric vials, will be batch-tested by the medical regulator.

The federal government said it was up to states and territories whether to run school-based immunisation programs.

ATAGI’s recommendation followed the Therapeutic Goods Administration’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine for five- to 11-year-olds on the weekend. The TGA and ATAGI are still examining Moderna’s application for its vaccine to be used in children aged six to 11.

“Vaccinating our kids is the next step in our national plan, which has continually provided us with a safe, step-by-step pathway to keeping Australians safe throughout the pandemic,” Mr Morrison said.

That national plan will be examined by the country’s leaders on Friday, after Queensland and the Northern Territory passed the 80 per cent double-vaccinated mark on Thursday. Western Australia is the only jurisdiction yet to reach that milestone.

The international border was initially due to reopen to certain visa holders on December 1 but that was delayed after Omicron was labelled a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organisation.

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said while it was clear Omicron was highly transmissible, there was still less certainty around the severity of illness or whether vaccine efficacy was affected.

“The symptoms are the same that we’ve seen all the way through but they have tended, so far, to be milder than previous versions of the virus. But I’d be very cautious about that,” he said on Thursday, adding there were still limited cases around the world.

On Wednesday evening Australian time, Pfizer announced early laboratory studies showed three doses of its vaccine were effective against the new variant, while two were less effective than its protection against other strains.

But Professor Kelly said more information was needed on vaccines and the new variant.

“We expect in the next week to find out more about vaccines,” he said.

Vaccines are not the only weapon against the new variant. Professor Kelly said one of the new treatments for COVID-19, the monoclonal antibodies Sotrovimab, had been shown to work against Omicron.

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