US secures 171 million Covid omicron shots ahead of fall vaccination campaign

A healthcare worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the vaccination clinic at the Peabody Institute Library in Peabody, Massachusetts, USA, Wednesday, January. 26, 2022.

Vanessa Leroy | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Department of Health and Human Services has received 171 million doses of new Covid vaccines targeting the omicron variant in preparation for the fall booster campaign.

US agrees to buy 66 million doses ModernHHS announced on Friday a new vaccine formula in a $1.74 billion deal. Moderna’s order comes in addition to a $3.2 billion deal to buy 105 million doses pfizerupdated shots aimed at omicron.

HHS expects to receive first deliveries from Pfizer and Moderna early this fall. New vaccines targeting omicron still need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration and approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Last month, the FDA commissioned Pfizer and Moderna to develop vaccines with a new formula that targets the omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, in addition to the original Covid strain that first emerged in Wuhan, China, in 2019.

Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, the most contagious variants of Covid, have sparked a summer infection wave that has led to more hospitalizations. Public health officials and scientists are worried that the US will face an even bigger wave of infections in the fall as immunity from the original vaccines wanes and people go indoors, where the virus spreads more easily, to escape the cold.

Omicron BA.5 accounts for almost 82% of new infections in the US, while BA.4 causes about 13% of new cases. As of Wednesday, the U.S. is averaging at least 126,000 new infections per day, according to CDC data. But the real number of new infections is likely much higher because so many people use home tests for Covid that are not counted by the official data.

As of Tuesday, an average of more than 6,300 people are hospitalized with Covid per day, according to the CDC. More than 360 people are still dying from the virus per day on average, according to the data.

The current Moderna and Pfizer drugs are based solely on the original strain of Covid that emerged in China over two years ago. The virus has since mutated heavily and, as a result, vaccines are no longer effective in blocking infections. The president Joe Biden recently contracted Covid, probably BA.5 despite being fully vaccinated and twice revaccinated. But modern vaccines are still effective in preventing serious illness and death. The President recovered within days after taking Paxlovid, Pfizer’s oral antiviral drug.

Many health officials and scientists believe that updating vaccines targeting omicron BA.4 and BA.5 will provide stronger protection against infection this fall. But the virus is rapidly evolving and it is not yet clear which variant will dominate at this time.

Congress has been unable to allocate additional funding to combat Covid. As a consequence, the White House has transferred $10 billion from other parts of the fight against the pandemic to provide new vaccines by the fall. This means Covid testing, for example, could be weak ahead of the fall wave.

The 171 million doses of vaccine provided by the United States are also not enough to cover the entire population of the country. Biden administration health officials have warned that the U.S. may have to limit vaccinations in the fall to people most at risk of severe illness.

The US has the option to purchase another 600 million doses from Pfizer and Moderna, according to HHS, but that would require additional funding from Congress.