Top 3 COVID-19 vaccine questions – Vaccine passports, easing restrictions and vaccines for variants
Dr Lucas de Toca, COVID-19 Primary Care Response First Assistant Secretary, answers the top 3 questions across our channels.
Good morning, my name is Dr Lucas De Toca and I lead the rollout of the vaccine through general practices, pharmacies and Aboriginal Health Services for the Australian Government. As usual, I will be answering some of the questions you have asked through our social media channels. Today I'm joined by Linda, who is doing Auslan interpreting. We're on the land of the Ngunnawal people, so dhawra nhuna, dhawra Ngunawal. Yanggu gulanyin ngalawiri, dhunayi, Ngunawal dhawra. Wanggarralijinyin mariny balan bugarabang. And I also extend that acknowledgment to the Traditional Owners of the lands where you may be watching from. Today we are going to talk about international digital vaccine certificates or COVID vaccine passports, we are also going to talk about how to stay safe as we open up and we are also going to also talk about strengths and new variants of the virus, which is always a topical theme. But as we talk about these things, we also want to shout out that October has been mental health month and it's quite normal as we open up, especially on the eastern seaboard, states start to open up, we are feeling a bit stressed or anxious. The last 20 months of the pandemic have been quite a strain on all of our mental health and well-being, so using this opportunity to encourage you to reach out. There are plenty of options out there, talk to your general practitioner, go to Beyond Blue, seek help online, or talk to your family and friends. We all struggle in different ways throughout the pandemic, so it's OK to not be OK and ask for help. Especially as we open up or in the states that are already open, there might be concerns about what that means in terms of cases.
The first question today is about COVID-19 vaccine passports, what are they and what are they for?
The term COVID-19 vaccine passport is used quite broadly for what we know as the international digital certificate for COVID-19 vaccines. As you are probably aware, as part of Australia's national plan to transition, Australia's response to the pandemic, or the National Reopening Plan, as it is commonly known as, we are looking at opening up the closed borders that have kept us safe for over 20 months, but has also kept families apart and caused significant stress in that balance of protecting lives, but taking some sacrifices to do so. The important thing is that as the next phase of the reopening plan, Australian citizens and permanent residents will be able to travel overseas without an exemption, as long as they are fully vaccinated. Part of that is being able to ascertain your fully vaccinated status and the government has set up a COVID-19 vaccine passport or an international digital certificate that is linked to your passport and can be used not only to leave and re-enter Australia, but also to ascertain your fully vaccinated status overseas. It's now available through a variety of channels. In fact, as I was reading the topics for today, I went online and downloaded mine just before the segment and it took about 5 minutes, because I am also getting ready to travel internationally and hopefully see my family in Spain soon, I haven't been back home for three years. A lot of people in Australia have multiple homes because many others have either been born overseas or have one or two parents born overseas. This is a significant step for many people in Australia, not just for international trips and holidays, which are also important, but also for families to reconnect. A lot of you will be interested in how to get your international digital COVID-19 vaccine certificate, there are many ways to do so. It's not the same as the COVID-19 vaccine digital certificate we use domestically in many states where they have a requirements of vaccination to enter venues, and that is currently linked to your check in app in Victoria or NSW, for instance. We are talking about a separate document that is also linked to your vaccination status but that you will only use for international travel. The quickest way of getting it is if you have a MyGov account or the Medicare Express app on your phone, is to go through the same steps that you originally went through to get your digital certificate, but it gives you now an option to download your international digital certificate just by adding your passport details, so you need your passport details handy. If you do it that way, you have access to your MyGov account or you have the Medicare Express app on your phone, you can get it within minutes, which is what I did before this segment. If you don't have your my MyGov account, or you don’t have your Medicare Express Plus app, or you don't have access to digital means, you can also call Services Australia on the Australian Immunisation Register line and they can mail it to you, but that can take up to 14 days, so you need to plan ahead if you are planning to use it overseas. Order it now if you think you are going to need it because it can take up to 2 weeks to arrive to your place. We are not using that one for domestic access, the domestic one is the digital certificate you probably already have, particularly in NSW or Victoria, where there are requirements for that. If you are not planning to travel overseas, there is no reason to get it now, but you know you can now get it and can get it really quickly. They have been designed in a way that meet all international standards for vaccine certification so that it can work in the countries you are going to. We strongly recommend you go to smarttraveller.gov.au for specific information on the entry requirements of different countries because that will be a really useful thing for you to check out, even before the pandemic, but also in this context to see what you need to do prior to being allowed to access another country. Once you have your certificate you can save it off-line, you can print it, and it will be checked at check-in here in Australia before you check-in and board your flight and then it can be used and checked, depending on the requirements, at your port of destination. It will have a QR code and it uses the same highly secure security and safety system that the chip in your passport uses and it is linked to your passport. It's very secure technology, as nonintrusive as possible, as easy to obtain as possible, and that way you can be safe and secure in the knowledge that your vaccination status is with you and you can show it as proof in other countries. If you are planning to travel overseas, go into MyGov, go into the Medicare Express Plus app, or call the Australian Immunisation Register and order your printed copy and you're sorted, but check smarttraveller.gov.au to see if there are other requirements.
The second question for today is now we are opening up, what else can we do to stay safe?
That is a really good question, as we move to Phase C of the reopening plan and vaccination rates continue to soar, we are well over 80% nationally first doses and going fast towards 80% second doses, with some jurisdictions having already reached that stage. At this rate, Australia will be one of the most vaccinated countries on earth against COVID-19, which is something we love to see. And as such, different states and territories are opening up and changing the public health restrictions and requirements that we have been experiencing since February or March last year. As this happens, it's really important to note that while the vaccines are incredibly effective at protecting from severe disease, hospitalisation and death, and have an impact in prevention of disease altogether and transmission, they are not a silver bullet, there is no magic bullet against COVID. There is a combination of efforts that all support us to stay safe. Getting vaccinated and supporting people around you getting vaccinated, is incredibly important, but there are many other things we can continue do to help prevent spread and protect those who, at this stage, cannot get vaccinated, like children under 12. Continue to do the COVIDSafe behaviours that you are used to. Check in at venues, it's an incredibly simple but important tool of contact tracing. Hand washing, cleaning surfaces and making sure hand hygiene is maintained. Staying at home if you have symptoms, isolating and getting a test. Maintaining physical distance where possible and where you can't or there are mandates in place, wearing a face mask. These things are not only useful to protect us from COVID but actually keep at bay other infections and respiratory diseases that we are used to. We have seen a drop in rates of common cold and influenza, although that is also conditioned by the closed borders, but if we keep these behaviours going, even though vaccination rates are incredibly high, we can help contain the clusters of COVID we will get as the country opens up, but we can also reduce the impact of other communicable that we are used to having in our lives, that would be good if we had lower rates of. Get vaccinated, of course, but keep practising COVIDSafe behaviours and that way you will continue to help reduce the spread and continue to move into a safe and open society.
Finally today, as we do regularly, a chat about strains or variants, mutations. Will the virus continue to change and will vaccines continue to work?
The answer to the first question is absolutely, yes. Viruses mutate, mutation just means 'change'. Viruses adapt, like any other biological thing, it is still not clear whether viruses are alive or not, but every time a biological entity replicates, every time a living thing or virus reproduces, there is a chance that copy might make mistakes in copying its genetic material. That mistake or change in a copy of genetic material is what is called a mutation. As always, anything in life and evolution, most mutations might not mean anything or might not be good for the organism or in this case, for the virus, and be selected out. The mutated copy might not actually work, so it doesn't get replicated again and that stops. In many cases it means nothing and the virus keeps replicating without any changes in behaviour or the way it operates in society. But in some cases that mutation might give the virus an advantage. An advantage that then might mean it is more transmissible, or has a shorter incubation period, or can survive for longer on surfaces. Those mutations, because they make the virus better at being a virus, tend to be selected. That means the different pressures that the keeps the virus from reproducing without limit, might not have as much of an effect in that particular mutated version, which means that mutated version is more successful and continues to reproduce and replicate, and becomes more and more common. That is what we have seen with the Alpha variant, or B117, starting to take over the original version of the virus very quickly in Britain where it first arose, the Alpha variant, and we've also seen it with Delta, or B16172, that when it first arose probably in India, it very quickly started to take over not only the original strain but also the Alpha variant that had become dominant, and now virtually is the main variant we see overseas and Australia. The key is that the more virus there is circulating, the more volume of virus there is, the more it replicates and the more chances, it's a just numbers game, the more chances there are for mutations. That's what’s important that we collectively, at a global level, do everything we can to reduce the amount of circulating virus which will reduce the rate at which mutations will emerge. Ultimately, given enough time and enough numbers of replications, mutation will emerge, but the key is what does that mean for our vaccine protection? Thankfully, our vaccines, the ones we use in Australia, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer, have proven to continue to be incredibly infective even against the mutated variants that we have seen emerge. Even though those vaccines were originally developed looking at the original strain or the Alpha strain, they have maintained a high level of effectiveness against the Delta strain, which is really good to see. It gives us some hope that new variants that emerge might still be responsive to the vaccines we have at the moment. In any case, the vaccine manufacturers and the governments are looking at whether new adjustments to the vaccine will be required as we go forward, but what we know now is there is some emerging evidence that a booster dose might be beneficial sometime after your second dose, and ATAGI, the Australia Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, is currently looking at what that means in the Australian context and what advice to provide to Government in terms of whether people need booster doses or not. We will continue to monitor what that means as new variants emerge. It could be that we need a booster dose after some time after we receive the second dose and that's enough for years. It could be that we move into a yearly program, a bit like the flu, where we get vaccinated against new variants every year. It could be we get protection for life after a booster. That is still a bit unclear and we need to see how the virus changes and how protection overtime goes with the vaccines before we can make calls on that. Ultimately, if you get vaccinated, if you practise COVIDSafe behaviours and if you limit the spread of COVID, you are actively reducing the chance of mutation thus actively reducing the chance of new variants emerging. We can all contribute to keep the circulating virus volumes down and reduce the likelihood of new variants emerging. And if new variants emerge, hopefully having the protection to continue to live our COVID-normal lives without major disruption.
That's all we have for today, I rambled on mutations but it's a really interesting topic. I hope that was useful. Thank you for submitting your questions and thank you for staying COVIDSafe. We'll see you next time.
- What is a COVID-19 vaccine passport and why would I need one?
- As states and territories begin easing restrictions and borders start opening, what does this mean and how can I stay safe?
- Will each new COVID-19 variant require a new vaccine?