People at high risk of the disease who have not yet received a second COVID-19 booster should not wait for the next generation, Omicron-targeted vaccines expected in the fall, five vaccine experts told Reuters.
In many countries, including the United States, the BA.5 omicron subvariant of the virus is increasing, but current vaccines continue to provide protection against hospitalization for severe disease and death.
And, as the virus evolves, it is not known which version will become widespread in the fall or whether the new vaccines — BA.4/5 in the United States and BA.1 in Europe — are expected to target.
“If you want a booster, get it now,” said Dr. John Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College who co-authored an editorial on the topic currently under review.
In the United States, regulators have asked Pfizer Inc, with partner BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc, to develop vaccine boosters that target both the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron cousins, as well as the original virus. They are expected to be ready by October.
Regulators in Europe, meanwhile, have signaled they are ready to use an Omicron-based booster soon to be available in Europe, targeting the BA.1 variant that caused a record spike in infections last winter.
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US regulators are hoping for an updated vaccine that targets the original strain and believe the Omicron variant offers broader protection against future variants and is worth a booster closer to the circulating version.
With the current surge and people’s immunity waning, experts told Reuters the best booster is at hand for those at risk.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 30% of people age 50 and older who are eligible for a fourth vaccine dose have received one, and less than 10% of those age 50-64 have. For those under 50 or without major risk factors, a fourth dose is not approved and has little support among scientific experts.
Moore said the evidence he’s seen, including at a June US Food and Drug Administration meeting, suggests that the benefit of the BA.4/5 booster compared to the original vaccine in preventing infection is “minimal.”
“People should not consider these Omicron-based boosters as some kind of magic bullet that will change the face of the pandemic and solve all their problems. It will have little impact compared to the booster we have now,” he said.
‘A lot of people are waiting’
Dr. Eric Topol, a genomics expert and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California, said that receiving a second booster confers a survival advantage over one booster that has been documented in five separate studies.
“A lot of people are waiting when we have really good proof,” he said.
Dr. Chief of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Bob Wacher says the longer a person has been since their last booster, the less protection they have against infection and serious disease.
“There’s a ton of Covid around and it’s a very infectious agent,” he said.
BA.5 has led to new cases worldwide and now accounts for about 82% of all US coronavirus infections.
Wachter does not believe the retooled BA.4/5 vaccines will be ready for release in two months. “It seems a bit ambitious to me, and even if they hit the timeline, it goes to the most vulnerable groups first,” he said. “I think it’s probably three or four months away for the average person.”
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Pfizer told Reuters it has a few million shots of the BA.4/5 vaccine made.
As for Novavax Inc’s newly approved vaccine, the company still needs approval for its use as a booster.
Moore, who participated in the Novavax clinical trial, said that while it’s an excellent vaccine, the company’s boosters aren’t likely to be available anytime soon. Novavax said it is developing the BA.4/5 booster and aims to have it ready by the fourth quarter.
“Whatever is in the pipeline is months away,” Topol said. “It’s a more virulent, more pathogenic version of the virus and it’s wise to be protected as best you can.”