COVID-19 boosters on track to join flu shot as annual fall tradition

COVID-19 isn’t vanishing and will probably require yearly shots like the flu, according to U.S. officials who must decide whether to launch another booster campaign this fall and if a variant-specific booster shot would be an upgrade on existing vaccines.

Unlike vaccines that stave off illness for many years, the protection offered by the first generation of COVID-19 vaccines wanes within several months.

“We did not know a year or two ago when vaccines were first available as to what their durability would be in the face of new variants. We now understand that resilience of vaccination is not what we’d like it to be. It’s not a tetanus vaccine that lasts 10 years,” said Cameron Wolfe, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University.

U.S. regulators authorized a second booster shot for people 50 and older earlier this year. Drugmakers and White House officials have signaled that a wider campaign will likely unfold before the winter, when the virus tends to proliferate.

It could become an annual tradition.

“We’re going to be dealing with this virus on a chronic basis,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told PIX11 over Memorial Day weekend. “Depending upon what this virus does, there is certainly a reasonably good chance that we will have the same sort of situation that we have with influenza, where every year you have to re-boost people to keep that protection up.”

One of the main challenges will be getting people to take the shots. About two-thirds of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 but less than a third of the population has received an initial booster.

Also, scientists who advise the Food and Drug Administration will almost certainly demand data that shows giving booster shots to the young and healthy is necessary before endorsing another campaign.

Another challenge will be making enough shots while keeping up with an ever-mutating virus. Tailoring the best COVID-19 vaccine is like trying to catch a moving train, with new spinoffs of the highly contagious omicron variation seeming to blanket the nation each month.

“Like the influenza vaccine, it will be close to what is circulating but not exactly up to date,” William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist at Vanderbilt University, said of a reformulated vaccine.

FDA officials will discuss this month whether a variant-specific shot is needed and, if so, how it will attack the dominant omicron strains.

Pfizer and Moderna, the leading COVID-19 vaccine makers in the U.S., are testing “bivalent” shots that could target both omicron and the original form of the virus that causes the virus.

Drugmakers and regulators will try to get on the same page as the virus mutates from the BA.1 form of omicron to BA.2 and — most recently — BA.2.12.1, which accounts for 6 in 10 cases in America.

Scientists told The Washington Times the manufacturers will likely target the original form of omicron that appeared around the winter holiday period and hope that the vaccine offers better protection across its sub-lineages than those on offer now.

“The vaccines that we developed against the original Wuhan and early variant strains — and we will still use — are still active against omicron, [but] they must just have lost some of their impact,” Dr. Wolfe said. “So an omicron-specific [vaccine], even if it doesn’t precisely target ‘BA version 2-point-1-point-whatever comes next’ gives you broad neutralizing activity that’s generally better than what we had.”

Stéphane Bancel, the CEO of Moderna, has said the company will share trial data in the second quarter on a shot that combines its existing booster with an omicron-specific formulation. This version “remains our lead candidate for the fall 2022 Northern Hemisphere booster,” he said in April.

“The company’s primary focus has been on the bivalent booster approach to maintain high neutralizing antibody titers while improving breadth of immunity to variants,” the company told The Washington Times this week.

Pfizer initiated omicron-specific trials in January.

“Our team of experts is working tirelessly to understand how our COVID-19 vaccine may protect against these evolving variant strains and will continue to share results as we have them,” the company said in a written statement.

Regulators will use drugmakers’ filings to guide their thinking on whether vaccines should be fine-tuned or if the current shots are sufficient for stiff-arming severe illness from the virus.

Looking further ahead, some researchers are hoping to land a “pan-coronavirus” vaccine after at least three pathogens in this family sparked waves of infection over the past two decades. Besides COVID-19, there was the original SARS outbreak in 2003 and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) remains a concern.

“The ideal vaccine would cover all coronaviruses but that’s a long way off,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, a global health professor at Georgetown University. “Companies are working on bivalent or multivalent vaccines. FDA will soon meet to decide the optimal vaccine composition for the fall. FDA will have to make a highly consequential decision. The stakes are very high.”

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

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