A new Covid vaccine “that works” against the latest variant is on the way and “everybody” in the US will likely be asked to take it, President Joe Biden says.
Covid cases and hospitalisations have been on the rise again across the US in recent weeks, prompting the return of mask mandates in some businesses and universities.
New vaccines targeting the dominant “XBB.1.5” Omicron strain — nicknamed the “Kraken” — developed by Pfizer, Moderna and Novavax are expected to be available from next month after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) outside experts hold a meeting on September 12.
Speaking to reporters while holidaying in Lake Tahoe on Friday, Mr Biden was asked about the uptick in Covid cases and the new variant.
“As a matter of fact, I signed off this morning on a proposal we have to present to the Congress a request for additional funding for a new vaccine that is necessary — that works,” the President said.
“And tentatively — not decided finally yet — tentatively, it is recommended that … it will likely be recommended that everybody get it no matter whether they’ve gotten it before or not.”
Healthcare providers and pharmacies such as CVS will offer the new boosters from next month, even as demand for Covid vaccines fades sharply amid waning concern about the virus and scepticism about the merits of the shots.
“Public health officials, if they want to see a majority of adults get these annual vaccines, they’re going to have to make the case to the American public that Covid isn’t over and it still poses a risk to them,” Ashley Kirzinger from the Kaiser Family Foundation told Reuters earlier this month.
XBB.1.5 drove a fresh wave of infections earlier this year and is particularly prevalent in the northeast US, but a number of other variants are already causing concern even before the updated booster shots roll out.
Earlier this month the CDC said it was tracking a new, highly mutated version of XBB.1.5 called “BA.2.86”, unofficially nicknamed “Pirola” on social media.
BA.2.86 has 36 mutations from XBB.1.5 — a similar number of mutations Omicron initially displayed in 2021 compared to the original strain of the virus.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified BA.2.86 as a “variant under monitoring” due to the large number of mutations it carries, and it’s unclear whether the updated vaccines targeting XBB.1.5 will be effective against the strain.
Other variants currently spreading in the US include “EG.5”, or “Eris”, and “FL.1.5.1”, also unofficially dubbed “Fornax”. EG.5 and FL.1.5.1 share a mutation known as F456L, which appears to help the virus escape protection from vaccination or infection with previous versions.
“But neither variant seems to cause more severe disease than earlier Omicron strains which were themselves less virulent than the pre-Omicron variants,” Dr Joel Zinberg wrote for the NY Post last week.
Dr Zinberg, director of the Public Health and American Well-Being Initiative at the Paragon Health Institute policy research group, also argued that while BA.2.86 was “worrisome” due to the high number of mutations and “may prove to be highly transmissible, there is nothing yet to suggest it will cause more severe illness”.
“The fact is, nearly everyone has some degree of immunity to Covid-19 that will protect them against severe disease and mortality,” he said.
“Blood bank data showed that as of September 2022, about 96 per cent of people 16 and older [in the US] have immunity resulting from vaccination (26 per cent), infections (23 per cent), or both (48 per cent). The numbers should be higher a year later.”
Dr Zinberg said should cases rise dramatically, those most at risk such as the elderly or immunocompromised “will need to exercise caution, just as they should during any annual flu season”.
“But the time for widespread Covid-19 mandates is over,” he said.
Vaccine makers, which posted record profits from the initial rollout, have tempered expectations for the latest round of boosters. Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccine sales topped $US56 billion ($87 billion) globally last year, with that figure expected to fall to around $US20 billion ($31 billion) this year.
In the US, more than 240 million people, or 73 per cent of the population, received at least one shot after the vaccine first became available in 2021. That figure dropped to fewer than 50 million by second half of 2022.
In Australia, nearly 19.7 million adults and more than 2.5 million children aged five to 17 have received a Covid vaccine — roughly 85 per cent of the population, according to the latest Health Department figures.
But just 3.5 million people — 13 per cent — have had a booster within the last six months as suggested by the Australian government, leaving some 16.7 million “out of date” with their injections.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) currently says all adults over 18 should “consider” a booster if their last dose or Covid infection was more than six months ago.
“Multiple new Omicron subvariants have emerged since the BA.4/5 wave in Australia during July and August 2022, displaying increased immune-escape properties (e.g. BQ.1 and XBB),” ATAGI’s most recent advice from February 2023 states.
“These have co-circulated without any specific subvariant establishing clear dominance. Numerous immunological studies report reduced neutralisation of new Omicron subvariants by both vaccine-induced and naturally derived antibodies.”
In the week to August 22, 5344 Covid cases were reported across Australia, an average of 763 per day — far below the most recent peak in the lead-up to Christmas of 16,000.