Apr 6, 2022 - Health

Experts eye a new game plan for COVID vaccines

Illustration of a syringe and glass medicine bottle with a post-it note attached that says "to do"

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

FDA advisers today will begin sketching out a long-term strategy for COVID vaccinations, addressing the risk of new variants and the need for new boosters.

Why it matters: Today's discussions could help lend clarity to a sometimes baffling vaccination effort that’s left many people unsure whether or when to shore up their immunity.

Driving the news: As the virus evolves and new variants spawn outbreaks, it’s getting harder to keep boosting vulnerable populations, or even recommend how many shots are enough.

  • Regulators have to balance the protection offered by an additional booster against the possibility of creating more confusion.
  • A growing body of data suggests that the existing vaccines may need to be updated.
  • An FDA advisory panel will delve into those issues today.

What they're saying: “The operative word to describe this discussion is humility,” University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm said. “We have more and more questions and have to be very mindful there could be a new variant tomorrow that will be very challenging.”

What we're watching: Experts on the advisory committee will discuss the viability of an annual COVID vaccine, similar to the flu shot.

  • That would require scientific models to predict how COVID will mutate. Regulators would then need to choose which strains a vaccine should target, and a central body like the World Health Organization would need to oversee changes in vaccine composition.
  • Manufacturers would also need considerable lead time to make potentially hundreds of millions of doses of modified vaccine.

While it’s relatively straightforward to identify flu strains and get shots into arms, the experience with COVID strains is much more limited — meaning modified vaccines would still need a rigorous review to ensure they're safe and effective, FDA staff wrote in briefing materials for today’s meeting.

The advisory panel will also discuss who’s in line for additional COVID boosters and the optimal timing to administer them.

  • "Implicit in all of this is the notion that we will need further boosters down the road," Vanderbilt University infectious diseases expert William Schaffner told Reuters.

Where it stands: U.S. officials last month cleared a second COVID booster for all Americans age 50 or older in addition to some with compromised immune systems.

  • About 77% of the U.S. population has at least one dose of vaccine and 45% is boosted, according to the CDC.

Meanwhile, communities across the U.S. are shutting down COVID testing and vaccination sites, reflecting a gradual return to pre-pandemic life and a shift to more individual responsibility.

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