Comment: FDA finally has a simple, well-timed booster plan

With new covid boosters ready this fall, they can be paired with flu shots. But Congress has to fund them.

By Lisa Jarvis / Bloomberg Opinion

The Food and Drug Administration reportedly has a new strategy for rolling out new booster shots that should bring needed clarity to covid vaccination in the United States. Going forward, most Americans will get the same advice about when to get their next shots.

Currently, second boosters are available only to people who are either over the age of 50 or have compromised immunity. The agency had been considering offering boosters to people of all ages this summer.

Instead, health officials will accelerate the availability of next-generation vaccines that are tailored to the highly contagious BA.4 and BA.5 omicron variants and offer these shots to everyone at once in September. Moderna and Pfizer are reportedly ready to meet that ambitious timeline.

This move makes sense both scientifically and practically.

Scientists have worried that the longer the FDA waited to approve a second booster for people under 50, the harder it would be to time the rollout of updated shots. If people were to get second boosters in August, they would want to wait two to three months — until October or November — to let their immune response mature before getting a new variant-specific shot. It’s easier to have the new vaccine be the next shot for this group.

On a practical level, speeding up the next-generation shots also simplifies public-health advice on when people should get the new vaccines. Although media reports about details of the rollout differ, the likely scenario is that the shots will be offered to everyone 12 and over. That will make uniform what has previously been patchwork guidance for different age groups.

Unfortunately, it will remain as difficult as ever to convince people that more covid shots are needed. While the vaccines have protected most people from serious illness, their ability to prevent infection — never the intended purpose of the shots, but certainly key to getting society fully back to normal — has grown weaker with each new variant.

All of this has led to excruciatingly slow uptake of available shots, and that has been especially worrisome for the most vulnerable groups. Hospitalization rates for people over 70, for example, are now near the peak last seen when the delta variant was circulating.

But offering updated shots to all Americans in September could help bring people on board by streamlining the process. Americans are accustomed to rolling up a sleeve for a flu shot each fall. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can suggest they simply get a covid shot at the same time. Assuming there are no more major variant surprises, this could be the beginning of putting the covid vaccine on an annual schedule, as Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, recently suggested to me.

Of course, it’s essential that Congress now invest in the fall vaccine plan. The Department of Health and Human Services has said it signed a new contract with Moderna to buy 66 million doses of an mRNA booster against BA.4 and BA.5. That adds to the roughly 105 million doses of Pfizer’s updated booster the agency previously agreed to buy.

It doesn’t take a mathematician to realize that won’t be enough shots for the entire U.S. population. Yet month after month, Congress continues to ignore White House requests for additional covid funding. HHS said it took $10 billion from other pandemic efforts to pay for these vaccines.

What message do lawmakers send about the importance of vaccination if they can’t ensure there will be enough shots to go around?

The FDA has struck upon a sensible plan. To avoid yet another tough winter with covid, Congress should work quickly to ensure it gets the support it needs.

Lisa Jarvis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, health care and the pharmaceutical industry.

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