If you’re at high risk, don’t wait for updated COVID vaccines, experts say

CHICAGO (Reuters) – People at high risk of serious illness who have not yet received a second booster dose of COVID-19 should not wait for the next generation of Omicron-targeted vaccines expected in the fall, five vaccine experts told Reuters.

In many countries, including the United States, the effect of Omicron BA.5 variant of the virus is increasing, but current vaccines continue to provide protection against hospitalization in the event of severe illness and death.

As the virus develops, it is not known what release will be in widespread circulation in the fall or whether the new vaccines – expected to target BA.4/5 in the US and BA.1 in Europe – will be a good match.

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“If you need a booster, get it now,” said Dr. John Moore, professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College, who co-wrote an editorial on the topic published Friday.

In the United States, regulators have asked Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) with partner BioNTech SE (22UAy.DE) and Moderna Inc (MRNA.O) to develop vaccine boosters targeting both BA.4 and BA.5 of Omicron’s cousins, As well as the original virus.

On Friday, the government said it had ordered 66 million doses of Moderna shots in a deal worth $1.74 billion. In addition to the 105 million doses already ordered from Pfizer/BioNTech, the full tally is 171 million shots, which are expected in early fall. Read more

Meanwhile, regulators in Europe have indicated that they will be willing to use any Omicron-based booster available to Europe soon, which could be the kind targeting the BA.1 variant that led to a record spike in infections last winter.

US regulators hope that an updated vaccine targeting the original strain and the Omicron variant will provide broader protection against future variants, and they believe a booster closer to the circulating version will be valuable.

Experts told Reuters that given the current increase and people’s waning immunity, the best booster for those at risk is the one on hand.

Only about 30% of people age 50 and older who qualify for a fourth dose of the vaccine have received a single dose, and less than 10% of those ages 50 to 64, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For those younger than 50 years of age or without major risk factors, a fourth dose has not been approved and there is little support for it among scientific experts.

Moore said the evidence he’s seen, including at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration meeting in June and since, suggests that the benefit of a BA.4/5 booster compared to the original vaccine is “negligible” in terms of preventing infection.

“The public should not regard these Omicron-based boosters as some kind of magic bullet that will change the face of the epidemic and solve all its problems. It will have a marginal effect compared to the booster we currently have.

‘Too many people are waiting’

Having a second enhancer provides a survival benefit over just one enhancer that has been documented in five different studies, said Dr. Eric Topol, a genomics expert and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California.

“A lot of people are waiting when we have really good evidence,” he said.

Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, said the evidence is increasingly clear that the longer a person has survived since their last booster dose, the less protection they have against infection and severe disease.

“There is a lot of COVID around us, and it is a very contagious factor,” he said.

BA.5 has led to a wave of new cases globally, and now accounts for nearly 82% of all coronavirus infections in the United States. Read more

Wachter is not convinced that repackaged BA.4/5 vaccines will be ready for circulation within two months. “It sounds a little ambitious to me,” he said, “and even if they get to the timeline, it’s probably going to go into the most high-risk groups first. I think it’s probably three or four months away for the average person.”

Pfizer told Reuters it has a few million shots of manufactured BA.4/5 vaccine.

For the newly authorized Novavax Inc (NVAX.O) vaccine, the company has not yet sought approval for use as a booster.

Moore, who took part in the Novavax clinical trial, said that while it’s an excellent vaccine, the company’s boosters aren’t likely to be available soon. Novavax said it is developing a BA.4/5 booster and aims to have it ready by the fourth quarter.

“Everything in the pipeline is months,” Topol said. “This is the most virulent and most pathogenic version of the virus, and protecting as best you can is smart.”

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(Julie Stenhuisen Reporting), Additional reporting by Mike Ehrman in Maplewood, NJ; Editing by Caroline Homer, Bill Bercrot and Cynthia Osterman

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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