US authorizes updated COVID-19 boosters that target newest variants

The U.S. on Wednesday authorized its first update for COVID-19 vaccines, clearing the way for booster doses that target the virus’ most common omicron strain.

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The boosters, reformulated to counter the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants, were authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, The Washington Post reported. The boosters could be rolled out within a few days.

The changes are the first since the mRNA vaccines debuted in December 2020, according to the newspaper. The new shots will be free to the public.

The boosters are scheduled to be reviewed by advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practice on Thursday. If the panel recommends the booster and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky approves it, some boosters could be available as soon as this weekend, the Post reported.

The move by the FDA tweaks the shots already made by Pfizer and Moderna, The Associated Press reported.

“These updated boosters present us with an opportunity to get ahead” of the next COVID-19 wave, FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf told reporters in a telephone call.

“The COVID-19 vaccines, including boosters, continue to save countless lives and prevent the most serious outcomes (hospitalization and death) of COVID-19,” Califf added. “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.”

Until now, COVID-19 vaccines have targeted the original coronavirus strain even though several mutations have emerged, the AP reported.

The virus is still killing an average of 400 to 500 people a day in the United States, according to the Post.

The new boosters are bivalent, or combination shots, the AP reported. They contain half of the original recipe and half of the protection against the newest omicron versions.

“It really provides the broadest opportunity for protection,” Pfizer vaccine chief Annaliesa Anderson told the AP.

It is unclear whether the American public, which has hesitated to accept boosters, will be more enthusiastic about the newest shots, according to the Post.

“We already have a problem with booster acceptance,” Eric Topol, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research, told the newspaper. Topol added that he thought the FDA’s move was a good one, but that a lack of human data for the new shots could cause people to balk.

“I think that would be unfortunate,” Topol told the Post.