As the omicron BA.5 sub-option grows, vaccine experts are urging people at high risk to get a COVID-19 booster now.

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People at high risk of severe illness who have yet to undergo second COVID-19 booster don’t wait for the next generation of Omicron-targeted vaccines due in the fall, five vaccine experts told Reuters.

Many countries, including the United States, have seen a rise in the BA.5 Omicron virus subvariant, but current vaccines still provide protection from hospitalization for severe illness and death.

And as the virus evolves, it is not known which version will be widely distributed in the fall and whether the new vaccines expected to target BA.4/5 in the US and BA.1 in Europe will be a good match.

A nurse prepares COVID-19 vaccines in Waterford, Michigan, USA April 8, 2022.

A nurse prepares COVID-19 vaccines in Waterford, Michigan, USA April 8, 2022.
(REUTERS/Emily Elkonin)

“If you need a booster, get it now,” the doctor said. John Moore, professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College, who co-authored an editorial on the topic currently under review.

In the United States, regulators have asked Pfizer Inc with partner BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc to develop vaccine boosters which targets both the BA.4 and BA.5 cousins ​​Omicron and the original virus. They are expected to be ready by October.

In the meantime, regulators in Europe have signaled that they will be prepared to use any Omicron-based booster available to Europe, which could very well target the BA.1 variant that caused a record spike in infections last winter.

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U.S. regulators are hopeful that an updated vaccine that targets the original strain and Omicron variant will provide broader protection against future variants and believe that a booster that is closest to the circulating version is valuable.

Given the current surge and people’s waning immunity, experts told Reuters that the best booster for those at risk is the one at hand.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 30% of people aged 50 and older who qualify for a fourth dose of the vaccine have received it, and less than 10% of people aged 50-64. For those under 50 or without major risk factors, a fourth dose has not been approved and scientific experts do not support it.

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

“The public should not view these Omicron-based accelerators as some sort of magic bullet that will change the face of the pandemic and solve all their problems. This will have a negligible impact compared to the accelerator we have now,” he said.

“TOO MANY PEOPLE WAITING”

Dr. Eric Topol, genomics expert and director of the Scripps Translational Research Institute in La Jolla, California, said that getting a second booster provides a survival advantage over a single booster response, which has been documented in five different studies.

“Too many people are waiting for us to have really good evidence,” he said.

Dr. Bob Wachter, chief medical officer at the University of California, San Francisco, said it’s becoming increasingly clear that the longer a person has gone since their last booster, the less protection they have against infections and serious illness.

“There’s a ton of COVID around and it’s a highly contagious agent,” he said.

BA.5 has caused a wave of new cases worldwide and now accounts for almost 82% of all coronavirus infections in the US.

Wachter is unsure if the updated BA.4/5 vaccines will be ready for rollout in two months. “It seems a bit ambitious to me, and even if they meet the deadline, it will probably hit the highest-risk groups first,” he said. “I think for the average person it’s probably three or four months.”

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Pfizer told Reuters that it had produced several million shots of the BA.4/5 vaccine.

As for Novavax Inc’s recently approved vaccine, the company has yet to obtain approval for its use as a booster dose.

Moore, who was involved in Novavax’s clinical trials, said that while it’s a great vaccine, the company’s boosters are unlikely to arrive anytime soon. Novavax said it is developing the BA.4/5 launch vehicle and intends to have it ready by the fourth quarter.

“Whatever is in development will happen in a few months,” Topol said. “It’s a more virulent, more pathogenic version of the virus, and it’s smart to defend yourself the best you can.”