Vaccine manufacturers are racing to develop the next wave of COVID-19 boosters as health officials prepare for an omicron-charged surge to hit the United States this fall.
While current vaccines continue to provide protection against severe illness and death from COVID-19, health officials hope for a booster targeting more recent strains of the coronavirus — specifically omicron BA sub variants. 4 and BA.5 – Will provide enhanced protection early this fall.
On Friday, July 29, the White House announced a deal to secure 66 million doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 booster vaccine, which is intended to provide better protection against new strains of the coronavirus.
The government also struck a deal to purchase 105 million doses of the bivalent booster from Pfizer, both of which require FDA clearance and a recommendation from the CDC.
These bivalent enhancers, which treat two viral strains in one shot, are expected to be available early this fall. The FDA initially expressed optimism about rolling out the program in October, but the Washington Post reported Thursday that the Biden administration now expects the footage to be available in September.
Regardless, infectious disease specialists say an improved version of a vaccine has always been the next step in getting protection against an ever-evolving virus. This is because the original vaccine was made to target the original strain, which has since gone through numerous mutations.
“The vaccines we have are first generation. They have done an amazing job,” said Dr. Liam Sullivan, an infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health. “I don’t even want to imagine what it would be like without the vaccines. It would have been awful. They kept people out of the hospital. They prevented people from dying. They’ve been a huge success, but they can also be improved upon.”
Related: A BA.5 variant could accelerate the COVID rush in Michigan’s fall
The most recent rise in COVID cases around the world has been linked to the latest omicron sub-variables, BA.4 and BA.5. The latter makes up about 82% of US cases, and about 70% of serial cases in Michigan.
BA.5 spreads more easily than previous strains of coronavirus. Health officials say it’s best to evade prior immunity as well, opening the door to infection among individuals who have already contracted COVID-19 as recently as this year.
“Omicron, unlike some other variants, showed this innate ability to escape neutralizing antibodies,” Sullivan said. But the good news is that these people don’t get hit hard. They are getting mildly ill.”
Moderna says its bivalent booster filter, designed against both the original strain and the newer Omicron variant, has been effective in clinical trials. The company said in late June that it intends to submit its data to regulators and prepare the supply if it receives approval by August.
Meanwhile, Pfizer has developed two new booster candidates – a divalent shot and one that targets only the omicron (monovalent). The company says that both shots elicit an increased response against Omicron BA.1, and to a lesser extent BA.4 and BA.5.
On Wednesday, Pfizer, along with its partner BioNTech, began testing its bivalent booster on 200 clinical participants ages 18 to 55.
When the footage is publicly available, it is possible that a new variant has taken hold by then. But Dr. Matthew Sims, director of infectious disease research at Beaumont Health, noted that the second generation vaccine would likely also provide better protection against the next strain because it likely had the same mutations as omicron, plus more.
“Like the vaccine we have now, by the time it was deployed, the country had already switched to alpha, but it was still effective because alpha was fairly close to the original,” Sims said.
Michigan health officials said the rapid spread of BA.5 may bring a fall increase weeks earlier than originally expected. They have long called for another wave of cases as students go back to school and social gatherings go home as temperatures drop.
The state recently saw the seven-day average of new daily COVID cases (2369) reach its highest point since late May. Hospitalizations and deaths remain steady, but health officials are watching closely as they continue to urge vaccinations for those who deserve an injection.
As of Wednesday, nearly 63% of Michigan residents had received at least a first dose of the COVID vaccine, while only 35.2% had received a booster dose beyond the initial dose.
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