COVID-19 booster vaccine may be needed every year to cover new variants - Michael Baker

A yearly COVID-19 booster vaccine may be needed in years to come to protect people against the virus, epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker says.

New Zealanders can get their booster dose three months after their second Pfizer vaccine. But in order to stay on top of the virus as new variants arrive, it's likely boosters will be needed at a similar frequency to the yearly flu vaccine.

"At the moment, we are going to need vaccines that cover the new variants, so that may need a booster perhaps every year, perhaps more often initially, but that's what we do with flu anyway because the virus keeps changing and we do get waning immunity," Baker told The Project on Thursday.

"I think we can expect with this virus for the foreseeable future that we are going to need new vaccines, but probably less frequently than at the moment."

About 55 percent of eligible Kiwis have had their booster dose, and Baker encourages everyone who can to get it.

"The Omicron wave is about to wash over New Zealand, so you want to get that booster now. You want to have those extra antibodies on board when you meet this virus, not a month or two afterwards, that won't help you so much," he says.

But with the gap between the second and booster dose changing from six months, down to four and now three months, Baker says he understands how people could be confused about when to get it.

Michael Baker.
Michael Baker. Photo credit: The Project

"One of the reasons is this is a new vaccine and it's a new virus, it may take a few years before we know the absolute optimal timing for every dose in the vaccine schedule," he says.

"But the evidence certainly is that you get a very good immune response, even at three months. And that's what we need at the moment, for the whole country."

If people are worried about any potential side effects from the booster, Baker says the pattern of their reaction will be similar to what they went through with their first and second doses.

"If you've had the first two doses and the side effects have been manageable - in particular, if you haven't had a major adverse reaction - then you should go ahead and have that third dose."

He encourages people who may be putting off their booster dose to wait no longer.

"We all procrastinate but I think that time is over now because we're going to see a huge wave of Omicron cases over the next few weeks, we may be up to 1000 cases a day, perhaps in two weeks' time," he says.

"Remember, after you've had the booster, it still takes two to four weeks to get the full protection, so don't delay any longer, this is the time to get booked for your booster."

A total of 95 percent of New Zealanders - or 3.97 million people - aged 12 and over have received two doses of the vaccine. Of these, 1.7 million have had a booster dose.