White House efforts to stave off fall COVID surge with new boosters face uphill battle

The White House is rushing to launch a new COVID-19 reminder campaign in early September, but faces an uphill battle to ensure its success.

The vaccines used in the campaign are the first that have been manufactured to specifically target the omicron subvariants currently causing the most infections, and administration officials have indicated they are preparing to begin offering vaccines shortly after Labor Day.

Immunity to the first round of vaccines is waning, and health officials said they want to make sure the public is protected as much as possible against another wave of infections in the fall and winter. Currently, nearly 450 Americans are dying from the virus every day, and there are fears the number will rise as people move indoors.

Pfizer and Moderna have applied to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use authorization for booster shots targeting the omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. Pfizer’s vaccine will be for anyone ages 12 and older, while Moderna’s will only be for adults ages 18 and older.

Administration officials say these new vaccines will be key to controlling a possible outbreak of falls, but they will have to convince an increasingly controlled public to get vaccinated.

White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha has been at the center of efforts to promote reformulated boosters, recently saying that “all the data suggests [they] should be very effective against new variants.

“The bottom line is that these are substantial improvements in our vaccines in terms of their ability to prevent infection, to prevent transmission. Certainly to prevent serious illness. And so it will be very important that people this fall and this winter get the new vaccine. Jha said at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event on Aug. 16.

During an interview with the “Conversations about Health Care” radio show, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky said the administration wants to give people the most protection wide as possible.

“So the strategy now is to tailor the vaccine to give us the greatest span of response, ideally one that would have less decline over time,” Walensky said. “I think it is better to use a vaccine adapted to the variant that we currently have.”

But despite the administration’s optimism, the effort is likely to face major obstacles. Chief among them is the lack of public interest. Only about two-thirds of the US population have been vaccinated with a series of primary COVID-19 vaccines, while less than half of this group has even received a first booster.

Vaccination rates among children are even lower. According to the CDC, less than 4% of eligible children under age 2 received at least one dose, and only 6% of children ages 2 to 4 received a single dose.

Rupali Limaye, a vaccine expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said she doesn’t expect the revamped boosters to do much to convince the under-vaccinated population to get vaccinated again.

The same people who rushed to get the first round of vaccines and then the first round of boosters will be the ones getting the specific omicron shots, she said, and mixed messages from health officials are partly to blame.

The most recent update to the CDC’s guidelines emphasized living with the virus and downplayed many of its previously recommended mitigation strategies. This doesn’t necessarily align with the idea that the public urgently needs an updated vaccine.

“I think for the most part, the majority of the audience kind of moved on, if you will. And the message has been that it’s going to be with us now,” Limaye said. “Why do I need a new vaccine related to a virus that my government has basically told me is no longer a problem?”

Rather than a broad rollout of the updated vaccines for the general public, Limaye and other scientists have suggested a more targeted approach, tailoring vaccine recommendations to the elderly and immunocompromised.

John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, said it was unclear what additional protection the new vaccines would provide against infection, but predicted they would not be much better than the first round of boosters.

The protection is probably “somewhere between mediocre and reasonable.” I mean, we just don’t know,” Moore said. “A booster will provide extra protection against the infection for, you know, a few months before it goes down again.”

Moore said it was important that health officials provide the public with realistic messages and not exaggerate the benefits of injections.

“It’s not like they’re a magic bullet that gives you super strong protection,” Moore said. “If the public thinks they are getting something that is really, really against infection, then they might change their behavior and increase the risk of exposure. It’s counterproductive.

The other concern of some scientists is that the government is moving too quickly to authorize vaccines. Neither Moderna nor Pfizer have clinical trial data for the vaccine. Instead, their claims are based on data from a booster targeting an earlier version of omicron, as well as preclinical data from mice.

But health officials maintain they don’t need more data because vaccine makers are essentially making a minor update to the existing, proven vaccine.

“There’s always a question here of being too slow or too fast, and I think one of the challenges is if we wait for this data to emerge in human data, not just mouse data, in data humans, we’ll be using what I would like to consider a potentially outdated vaccine,” Walensky said. “I think it’s best to use a vaccine suitable for the variant we have now.”

Leave a Comment