COVID-19 vaccines: Your burning questions answered

As we navigate the third year of the coronavirus pandemic, here’s the latest on what you need to know about variants, vaccines and living with Covid-19.

Almost 95 per cent of Australians aged 16 and over have now had at least two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, while more than 1.4 million vaccine doses have been administered to children aged 5-11.

Borders continue to reopen – Western Australia is the latest to welcome back visitors – as Australians adjust to living with the virus.

But with news of the Omicron sub-variant tipped to become the dominant strain here by the end of March and Deltacron emerging, how worried should we be about a return to restrictions and higher ICU hospitalisations?

Covid-19 in the community in 2022

Covid has spread so widely now that knowing someone who has had the virus is becoming as common as knowing someone who’s had a cold.

This is largely thanks to the highly transmissible yet comparatively milder Omicron variant which has swept through the country over the past couple of months.

That is not to downplay the risks or severity of illness.

While in most cases – particularly if you’re vaccinatedsymptoms of Covid are mild and may include fever, cough and fatigue, the virus is still capable of causing serious illness which can result in severe pneumonia, organ failure and possibly death.

Not only that, having even a mild case of Covid can raise the risk of cardiovascular problems for at least a year after diagnosis, according to a study published in Nature.

There’s also the risk of long Covid, a common post-viral syndrome where symptoms remain or develop after the initial infection.

The main symptoms of long Covid are fatigue, breathlessness, and chest pain, infectious diseases physician Dr Nick Coatsworth told House of Wellness radio.

How can I reduce my risk of Covid?

The same public health measures we’ve been practising since the pandemic began still apply:

  • Good hand hygiene.
  • Wearing a mask.
  • Social distancing.
  • Getting tested if you’re unwell.
  • Quarantining active cases.
  • Getting vaccinated.
  • Covid-19 home tests: Know your result in minutes

What do I need to know about Covid variants?

The initial Sars-CoV-2 strain was first confirmed in Wuhan, China in December 2019, but like all viruses, it has mutated over time.

Last year’s delta variant was almost twice as contagious as its predecessors and caused more severe illness, while Omicron was highly transmissible but resulted in less severe disease.

We’re now seeing a new Omicron subvariant – BA.2 – emerge.

BA.2 is tipped to become the next dominant strain in Australia, yet is unlikely to be the last, according to Monash University molecular virologist Dr Vinod Balasubramaniam.

“Newer variants are inevitable when it involves RNA viruses,” Dr Balasubramaniam says.

“Every time the virus reproduces inside someone there’s a chance of it mutating and a new variant emerging.

“It’s a bit like rolling dice. The more you roll, the greater the chance of new variants appearing.”

While the Covid-19 virus has mutated hundreds of times since it was first discovered, in some cases the mutations have been short-lived, while others have become what the World Health Organisation have labelled Variants of Concern.

The likely sources of a new VOC are areas of the world where large populations are unvaccinated, or mutations within an animal, or even a single immunosuppressed person, explains Australian National University Infectious Diseases specialist Associate Professor Sanjaya Senanayake.

Are vaccines effective against new variants?

CSIRO Professor Seshadri Vasan has researched how Covid has evolved since its beginning and says the BA.2 strain should not cause undue concern.

“So far, evidence from our colleagues in Denmark (where BA.2 has accounted for almost half of all cases) show that it while could spread faster, there is no evidence of increased severity,” Prof Vasan says.

“Therefore it is important to keep calm and continue existing measures such as getting ourselves vaccinated, including the booster dose, and following social distancing, masks and local guidelines.”

Scientists are hopeful of a vaccine being developed to target all variants.

There is absolutely no reason why a vaccine cannot be developed that is able to be effective against all variants,” Associate Professor in Epidemiology at Deakin University Hassan Vally says.

“Although there are differences between variants of concern there are also likely to be antigens that can be targeted that are shared across all variants.

“It’s not to say that this is going to be easy, but it is entirely possible.”

Vaccines and who can access them in Australia?

There are currently four vaccines available in Australia – Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Novavax. Everyone in Australia aged five and over is eligible for a free Covid vaccination.

If you are 16 or 17 (or have turned 16 since you had your primary dose of COVID-19 vaccine) you can have a booster dose three months after your first course.

What are the risks as winter approaches?

It is almost three years since Australia last experienced a flu season, as a result of pandemic-induced border closures and lockdowns.

That does mean there is a chance you could catch the flu and Covid at the same time this winter, particularly as colder months bear down and more people are mixing indoors in often poorly ventilated spaces.

The best defence against both remains vaccination and fortunately they can be administered on the same day.

Living with Covid

Australia’s domestic borders have reopened and international travel has resumed but some restrictions remain.

Western Australia, for example, still requires a rapid antigen test on within 12 hours of arrival and to report any positive result.

You can also check restrictions in all states and territories using the Covid-10 Restriction Checker.

All passengers arriving by air into Australia need to complete a digital passenger declaration.

Written by Dan Imhoff with Claire Burke.

Updated March 17, 2022.

 

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