Fourth Covid-19 vaccination recommended for risk groups in Austria

The fourth dose - or second booster - is not yet recommended for healthy people aged 12 to 64, according to Austria's Ministry of Health.

A man waits to be vaccinated at a vaccine centre in Vienna, Austria. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

Austria’s National Vaccination Committee (NIG) has recommended a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, but only for those deemed at risk of serious illness.

The NIG identifies risk groups as people over the age of 80 and those between the ages of 65 and 79 with a weakened immune system or existing health conditions.

The official recommendation for people over the age of 80 is to receive the fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine between four and six months after the third shot, or second booster. The same advice applies to people aged 65 to 79 but only after consultation with a doctor.

FOR MEMBERS: EXPLAINED: What should I do if my Austrian Green Pass is expiring

Recommendations by the NIG are not legally binding in Austria but are usually adopted by the federal government.

According to the NIG, a fourth dose for the general population is not yet recommended but people should not be denied access if they request it (also known as “off label”). It is also expected that a general recommendation for the fourth dose for all age groups could be issued before autumn 2022, reports ORF.

In the case of severely immunocompromised people, such as transplant patients or those undergoing chemotherapy, the NIG advises they should be treated according to their needs. This includes the use of monoclonal antibodies as a preventative treatment, if needed.

The advice from the NIG follows recent advice issued by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) which only recommends the fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine for people over the age of 80.

In Vienna, the health authority had already approved the use of the fourth dose, where the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccinations will be offered to eligible residents.

READ MORE: How Austria’s attempt to make vaccines mandatory changed the country

What happens with the Green Pass?

Following the recommendation by the NIG, it is now expected that the Austrian Federal Government will announce changes to the Green Pass.

Der Standard reports that the validity of the Green Pass could be extended to one year. Currently, the vaccination certificate for the third dose is valid for nine months but the certificate for two doses is only valid for six months. A certificate of recovery from Covid-19 is also only valid for six months.

Tens of thousands of Green Pass certificates are scheduled to expire in the coming months but Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) recently said the government was working on a solution.

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EXPLAINED: How Austria’s compulsory vaccine mandate could be back in June

The much-debated policy sparked controversy since before it was approved in February, meaning that May could be a definitive month in the country.

EXPLAINED: How Austria's compulsory vaccine mandate could be back in June

Austria’s Federal Government has a ticking time bomb on its hands: an ordinance that suspended its vaccine mandate law is set to expire by the end of May, which means that the controversial mandatory vaccination would be again in place as early as June 1st.

In order to keep that from happening, Austria’s Health Ministry needs to extend the current regulation or create a new one.

If it doesn’t, the Covid-19 mandatory vaccination law would automatically be back in June.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What are Austria’s plans to bring back the vaccine mandate?

Since, by June, the vaccine mandate stated that non-vaccinated would start getting fines, the resumption of the law would mean that, from next month, those who are not vaccinated could be fined in routine checks, such as traffic checks.

The ins and outs of the vaccine mandate

The law was first introduced in February, even though the technical requirements for it to be enacted were not in place. The first stage of it was purely “informational”, and Austrian residents received letters explaining about vaccines and about the regulation.

A second stage, when people could have been fined if they were not vaccinated, was set to start in mid-March. Before a single person was fined, though, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) suspended the law with an ordinance.

The law was suspended for a variety of reasons, primarily due to the relatively high vaccination coverage the country had already received, along with the lower virulence of the Omicron variant. 

READ ALSO: Austria to scrap mandatory Covid vaccinations

To create a new regulation or extend the existing one stopping people from being fined, Rauch must await the report of the vaccination commission, which should be ready in May, according to the Ministry.

The coronavirus commission will assess whether the Vaccination Act is suitable and useful from a medical and legal point of view. A previous report said there were arguments for and against mandatory vaccination for those who were completely unvaccinated.

READ ALSO: How Austria’s attempt to make vaccines mandatory changed the country

Der Standard reports there is little political support for compulsory vaccination and says there are still technical problems regarding automated fines. However, according to the Ministry of Health, the infrastructure should be completed in June.