Biden administration officials are hailing the approval of updated booster shots that target the two most prevalent Omicron subvariants, and saying the country is entering a new pandemic phase when most people will only need to get annual vaccinations, as they do with the flu.
President Biden, in a statement Tuesday evening, described the new shot as a “once-a-year shot” that could “reduce your risk of getting COVID-19, reduce your chance of spreading it to others, and dramatically reduce your risk of severe COVID-19.”
Massachusetts health officials said that Friday was the first day that shipments of the updated booster shots from Pfizer and Moderna arrived directly at health care providers. They will continue to be delivered over the coming days and more appointments will become available, the Department of Public Health said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, said in a White House briefing earlier Tuesday: “It is becoming increasingly clear that, looking forward with the COVID-19 pandemic, in the absence of a dramatically different variant, we likely are moving towards a path with a vaccination cadence similar to that of the annual influenza vaccine, with annual, updated COVID-19 shots matched to the currently circulating strains for most of the population.
“We expect that the updated vaccines will offer better protection against the SARS-CoV-2 subvariants that are currently circulating,” Fauci added.
Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said that “barring any new variant curveballs … for a large majority of Americans, we are moving to a point where a single annual COVID shot should provide a high degree of protection against serious illness all year. That’s an important milestone.”
Jha noted that people at highest risk “may need more than annual protection, and we will ensure in this administration that they get whatever protection they need.”
He also acknowledged the possibility that a new variant could emerge, saying, “We plan for what we think is the median, the most likely scenario. But we’re always watching for that unusual event, and if that happens, we will address it and we will adjust to it and we’ll account for it.”
Fauci said there was always the possibility of a “wildcard of a way-out, out-of-left-field variant coming in. If that happens, all bets are off, and we change.”
Jha said in a stream of tweets Tuesday that the “formula” to control COVID-19 included the updated vaccines, as well as antiviral medicines, rapid tests, and improved indoor ventilation.
How do we stay safe and healthy with COVID around?
As summer draws to a close and we head into the fall and winter
This has been on my mind
Our ability to protect ourselves keeps getting better
So let’s talk about that and what we all need to be doing
— Ashish K. Jha, MD, MPH (@AshishKJha46) September 6, 2022
Some experts tweeted that there are still unanswered questions, including how well the updated boosters will work and whether people will get them.
“Annual Covid booster? Possibly, but a few stars need to align first I think,” tweeted Dr. Peter Hotez, codirector of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
Annual Covid booster? Possibly, but a few stars need to align first I think: 1) I would like to see what the human immune response looks like to our new bivalent booster just announced and released, 2) assuming that it induces immunity to BA.5, what… https://t.co/o9qG4Qnq5C
— Prof Peter Hotez MD PhD (@PeterHotez) September 6, 2022
Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, questioned whether the shots would last a whole year, tweeting, “I don’t see any evidence for how an annual Covid shot will provide durable protection (current ones wane after 4-6 months) without better vaccines.” He noted efforts to create a vaccine that will protect against all variants, to improve the lipid nanoparticle delivery system of vaccines, and to develop a nasal vaccine.
Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist in Texas and author of the newsletter Your Local Epidemiologist, said in a post that the administration was gambling because it’s not clear if an annual vaccination like the flu vaccination will work. “The fall bivalent vaccine is … our first attempt to apply the flu model to SARS-CoV-2. This is our pilot. And we really need to see how the pilot works in the ‘real world’ before making sweeping declarations, like an annual shot. We need the data, the time, and the humility to tell. Let’s first get through winter,” she said.
Dr. Robert Wachter, who chairs the Department of Medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, told CNN, “The biggest problem with the vaccines today is that people aren’t getting them.”
Wachter said officials were hoping to get more people boosted by taking away uncertainty about when to get shots. The overall goal, he told CNN, was to cast boosters as more manageable, something you do every year, like getting a flu shot.
“I think it’s a really smart way of rebranding and rethinking it,” Wachter said.
The Globe reported Sunday it wasn’t clear if people were going to get the shots, but doctors said interest might pick up after the holiday weekend and people return to school and work.
Experts say the updated boosters are crucial to blunting the impact of an expected surge of infections this fall and winter.
“Staying up to date on vaccines, including boosters, is the most effective way to prevent serious illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19. While vaccine protection decreases over time, boosters re-stimulate the immune system and increase vaccine efficacy again. Boosters are an important defense, even if you’ve already had COVID,” the state Department of Public Health said in a statement.
“Winter is not that far away. The past two years, we have seen COVID-19 cases and deaths soar. It does not have to be that way this year. If you are 12 and older, go get your new COVID-19 shot this fall,” Biden said in his statement.
Martin Finucane can be reached at email@example.com.