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The United States has reached an important milestone in the pandemic, according to federal health officials.
In the future, COVID-19 could be treated more like the flu, with an annual vaccine providing a year of protection against serious illness for most people.
“Barring new variant curveballs, for a large majority of Americans, we are heading towards a point where a single annual COVID vaccine should provide a high degree of protection against serious disease year-round,” said Ashish Jha, White House COVID Response Coordinator during a press briefing on Tuesday.
The federal government has begun rolling out a new round of recalls for the fall – these are updated versions of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines targeting both the original coronavirus and the two omicron subvariants that currently cause most infections.
These vaccines could be changed again if new variants become dominant in the future, which is how the flu vaccine works. Every fall, people get a new flu shot designed to protect against strains of the virus that may be circulating that season. The hope is that COVID boosters will act the same way.
Jha warned that older people and those with health conditions that make them more susceptible to serious illnesses might need boosting more often. But for most people, Jha hopes this final reminder will be the last shot they need for at least a year.
Throughout the pandemic, SARS-CoV-2 has been incredibly unpredictable and has moved much faster than expected, so officials say they will continue to monitor the virus closely and are prepared to reschedule vaccines. if necessary.
“You have to put in the joker of a variant coming out of left field,” White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said during the briefing. If that happens, he says the recommendations may change. But, “if we continue to have some kind of drifting evolution along the BA.5 subline,” he says, the annual plan should be able to cover whatever exists as a dominant variant.
But there’s still a lot of debate about how big the new boosters’ upgrade really is. Some infectious disease experts aren’t convinced the updated vaccines will be a game-changer because they haven’t been tested enough to see how well they work.
“I think the risk here is that we’re putting all of our eggs in one basket,” Dr. Celine Gounder, senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told NPR. “We’re just focused on strengthening vaccines. I think the problem is that people are looking for a quick fix. And boosters are not a quick fix for COVID.”
Federal officials are concerned that low numbers of people are signing up for the new booster shots, following low demand for the initial booster shots. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention only 34% of people over 50 received their second reminder.
So, as we head into winter, the administration is urging everyone ages 12 and older to step up immediately to help protect themselves and the most vulnerable people around them. People should wait at least two months since their last vaccine and at least three months since their last infection.
But they can sign up for a COVID booster along with a flu shot.
Because Congress has been reluctant to provide additional funding to fight the pandemic, the new boosters will likely be the last COVID vaccines provided for free. People who have insurance will be covered by their policies. The administration says it is working to ensure those who are uninsured have access to future COVID-19 vaccines.