COVID-19: Experts call for speeding up of second booster jab rollout as 60,000 receive it so far

Experts are calling for the second COVID-19 booster to be rolled out much faster.

On Thursday, almost 11,000 new coronavirus cases were reported with 554 people in hospital. Sadly, another 15 people with COVID-19 died. 

One of the main reasons case numbers are increasing at such a rapid rate is the new BA.5 variant - it's taking over.

The weekly Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) figures show BA.5 made up just one in 10 infections last week - but this week it's almost one in three.

Based on its spread overseas, ESR thinks that, by next month, it'll make up 90 percent of all COVID-19 cases - and that's because BA.5 is better at evading immunity.

Principal ESR scientist Michael Bunce said, "it's a textbook example of exponential amplification". 

"The snowballing effect as a variant has an advantage over existing variants and is beginning to... have a selective sweep through New Zealand," Prof Bunce said.

"It's highly probable that this is the primary driver that's [BA.5] driving up case numbers here in Aotearoa New Zealand," he said.

Next week, BA.5 will be the dominant variant and by August it'll be 90 percent of cases - and that's because it's sneaky, ESR said.

"So BA.5 is probably one of the most evasive versions of COVID-19 virus that we've ever seen and that is it has the ability to duck and weave away from immunity gathered from either vaccines or prior infections" Prof Bunce added. 

There's no indication that BA.5 is any more severe than other variants but the sheer numbers it's driving are prompting concerns within the World Health Organization (WHO).

"Globally reported cases have increased nearly 30 percent over the past two weeks. Four out of six of the WHO sub-regions saw cases increase in the last week. 

"In Europe and America, BA.4 and BA.5 are driving waves," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

In New Zealand, a second booster is being rolled out to people aged over 50 and health, aged care and disability workers aged 30 and over.

It must be at least six months since the previous booster shot and should be at least three months since a COVID-19 infection.

The rollout began nine days ago with 60,000 kiwis receiving it so far but experts are calling for it to be sped up.

Second booster recipient Christopher Fellows said he trusts science. 

"I believe with the new variants it's probably the smart thing to do," he said.

Some are calling for the rollout to be extended to people aged over 30 but Allan Moffitt, the clinical director of community health care group Procare, said 50-plus is about right - especially for the many in that group who didn't get the previous dose.

"The big issue is really about people who haven't had their first booster yet and we need more people to actually get there," Dr Moffitt said.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker said you'd be forgiven for not knowing the second booster rollout started more than a week ago.

"Yeah, I think it is a major concern because we know it is a challenge to get additional doses delivered and the fact that a third of New Zealanders haven't had that third dose at this stage I think is a big concern."

First booster or second booster, it's likely we'll be needing one more every year for some time yet - just like for the flu.