FDA approves Omicron-specific COVID boosters, ready for Canada sometime in the fall
The U.S. on Wednesday authorized its first update to COVID-19 vaccines, booster doses that target today’s most common Omicron strain. Shots could begin within days.
The move by the Food and Drug Administration tweaks the recipe of shots made by Pfizer and rival Moderna that already have saved millions of lives. The hope is that the modified boosters will blunt yet another winter surge.
Until now, COVID-19 vaccines have targeted the original coronavirus strain, even as wildly different mutants emerged. The new U.S. boosters are combination, or “bivalent,” shots. They contain half that original vaccine recipe and half protection against the newest omicron versions, called BA.4 and BA.5, that are considered the most contagious yet.
The combination aims to increase cross-protection against multiple variants.
“It really provides the broadest opportunity for protection,” Pfizer vaccine chief Annaliesa Anderson told the AP.
The updated boosters are only for people who have already had their primary vaccinations, using the original vaccines. Doses made by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech are for anyone 12 and older while Moderna’s updated shots are for adults _ if it has been at least two months since their last primary vaccination or their latest booster. They’re not to be used for initial vaccinations.
There’s one more step before a fall booster campaign begins: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must recommend who should get the additional shot. An influential CDC advisory panel will debate the evidence Thursday _ including whether people at high risk from COVID-19 should go first.
“As we head into fall and begin to spend more time indoors, we strongly encourage anyone who is eligible to consider receiving a booster dose with a bivalent COVID-19 vaccine to provide better protection against currently circulating variants,” FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf said in a statement.
The U.S. has purchased more than 170 million doses from the two companies. Pfizer said it could ship up to 15 million of those doses by the end of next week.
The big question is whether people weary of vaccinations will roll up their sleeves again. Just half of vaccinated Americans got the first recommended booster dose, and only a third of those 50 and older who were urged to get a second booster did so.
It’s time for U.S. authorities to better explain that the public should expect an updated COVID-19 vaccination every so often, just like getting a fall flu shot or a tetanus booster after stepping on a rusty nail, said University of Pennsylvania immunologist E. John Wherry.
“We need to rebrand it in a societally normal-looking way,” rather than a panicked response to new mutants, Wherry said. “Give a clear, forward-looking set of expectations.”
The original vaccines still offer strong protection against severe disease and death from COVID-19 for most generally healthy people, especially if they got that important first booster dose. It’s not clear just how much more benefit an updated booster will bring _ beyond a temporary jump in antibodies capable of fending off an omicron infection.
The FDA cleared the modifications ahead of studies in people, a step toward eventually handling COVID-19 vaccine updates more like yearly flu shots.
First, FDA checked human studies of earlier Pfizer and Moderna attempts to update their vaccines _ shots matching the omicron strain that struck last winter. That recipe change was safe, and substantially boosted antibodies targeting the earlier variant _ better than another dose of the original vaccine _ while adding a little protection against today’s genetically distinct BA.4 and BA.5 omicron versions.
But FDA ordered the companies to brew even more up-to-date doses that target those newest omicron mutants instead, sparking a race to roll out shots in less than three months. Rather than waiting a few more months for additional human studies of that recipe tweak, Marks said animal tests showed the latest update spurs “a very good immune response.”
The hope, he said, is that a vaccine matched to currently spreading variants might do a better job fighting infection, not just serious illness, at least for a while.
What’s next? Even as modified shots roll out, Moderna and Pfizer are conducting human studies to help assess their value, including how they hold up if a new mutant comes along.
And for children, Pfizer plans to ask FDA to allow updated boosters for 5- to 11-year-olds in early October.
It’s the first U.S. update to the COVID-19 vaccine recipe, an important but expected next step — like how flu vaccines get updated every year.
Canadians are still awaiting government approval of an Omicron-specific COVID-19 booster shot — but one provincial health official is hinting the wait could soon be over.
Quebec’s health director Dr. Luc Boileau said one week before that the bivalent vaccine should be available for Quebecers in less than two weeks and would immediately replace older-generation vaccines once it becomes available.
The comments come before Health Canada has publicly revealed any timeline on when the new shots could be approved.
The proposed bivalent vaccines are designed to recognize specific mutations in the spike protein of the Omicron BA. 1 subvariant. The shots target both the original strain of COVID-19 and the Omicron variant.
Moderna will supply Canada with 12 million doses of its Omicron-targeted COVID-19 vaccine when it gets approved by Health Canada.
The company’s trial data showed that when given as a fourth dose, its variant-adapted booster raised antibodies by eight-fold against Omicron. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) has said the early data is looking good, saying “Moderna’s vaccine demonstrates superior antibody response against Omicron.”
A supply deal signed last year between Moderna and the federal government allows for access to new vaccine adaptations.
Pfizer also has an Omicron-specific vaccine being reviewed by Health Canada and those boosters are expected to be approved and ready for arms sometime in the fall.
This article was first reported by the Canadian Press