Australia to shorten booster intervals as Omicron pushes cases to records

Australia would further shorten the wait time for people to receive their Covid-19 booster shots, Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Friday, as the country grapples with record infections fuelled by the Omicron variant.

Booster shots will be offered from 4 January to everyone over 18 who had their second shot four months earlier and the interval will be again reduced to three months by the end of January.

"These dates have been set out of an abundance of caution to give Australians early continued protection," Hunt said during a media conference in Canberra.

Most states had been pressing the federal government to make more people eligible for boosters to stem the growing tide of Omicron cases. Authorities two weeks ago reduced the wait time to five months from six.

Australia has been looking to ramp up the rollout of boosters after becoming one of the world's most-vaccinated countries against Covid-19, with more than 90 percent of people over the age of 16 having received two doses.

A growing number of countries are reducing the wait time for boosters from six months after the emergence of the Omicron variant. This month, South Korea, Britain and Thailand cut that interval to three months.

The latest move on boosters comes as Australia's daily infections hovered near record levels on Friday prompting states to reinstate some restrictions. The country reported just over 7700 new cases, mainly in its most populous states of Victoria and New South Wales.

Despite record cases, authorities are hoping the hospitals will not come under extreme pressure from the new strain, which they say appears to be less severe than other variants.

The number of people admitted in hospitals is rising steadily, but remains far lower than during the Delta outbreaks. Just over 4 percent of patients in hospitals have been infected with Omicron as of 20 December, with only one in intensive care.

The World Health Organisation earlier this month warned wealthy countries against hoarding Covid-19 vaccines for booster shots as they try to fight off the new Omicron variant, saying it threatened supplies for poorer countries where inoculation rates are still low.