Get the new Omicron booster and a flu shot, White House says

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WASHINGTON — The new COVID-19 vaccines finally approved last week mark a new phase in the fight against the disease, top health officials from the Biden administration said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Originally released in late 2020, the COVID vaccines have now been updated to target the BA.4 and BA.5 strains of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which have been dominant this year.

“For a large majority of Americans, we’re getting to a point where a single annual COVID shot should provide a high level of protection against serious disease year-round,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the coordinator of the White House pandemic response team. Jha called the new vaccines an “important milestone,” though he warned that “variant curveballs” could undermine hopes for boosted immunity.

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dr.  Ashish Jha, White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator, stands on a White House podium.

dr. Ashish Jha at the daily White House press conference on July 22. (Brendan Smialowski/TBEN via Getty Images)

“For the first time since December 2020, these vaccines – our vaccines – have caught up with the virus,” Jha said, noting that the United States is the first country to develop an Omicron-specific vaccine. He added that the Biden administration is coordinating with states and municipalities to distribute the vaccine in “tens of thousands” of locations in the coming days.

As has been the case with previous COVID-19 vaccination efforts, inoculations will be free. All people 12 years and older are eligible.

“We are probably moving towards a path with a vaccination frequency comparable to that of the annual flu vaccine,” added Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s top pandemic adviser. In the coming months, pharmacies are expected to offer the COVID and flu vaccines at the same time, hoping to prevent a “twinemia” caused by two respiratory viruses circulating at the same time.

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“I do believe this is why God has given us two arms,” joked Jha, “one for the flu shot and the other for the COVID shot.”

Targeting the new vaccines to the strains circulating today is an implicit bet that the virus will continue to evolve along the Omicron pathway, not in a new and unpredictable direction.

“Get your updated COVID-19 as soon as you qualify,” Fauci said, reminding people that the vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective.

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A nurse wearing protective gloves and a surgical mask gives a man a COVID booster injection.

Occupational nurse Cleopatra Oniya administers a COVID-19 booster injection at Ted Watkins Park in Los Angeles on May 5 (Frederic J. Brown/TBEN via Getty Images)

If the virus only experiences what Fauci called a “minor drift” of BA.5, the bivalent vaccine should be able to spot the difference. But Fauci, who has battled infectious diseases for four decades, warned that the pathogen originally known as SARS-CoV-2 could evolve in ways that render current vaccines ineffective.

“If that happens, all bets are off — and we change,” Fauci said.

Jha said the goal was to develop vaccines that don’t require constant updates. “We have to get to the point where we have variant-resistant vaccines, we have mucosal vaccines. We have to play the long game against this virus,” he said.

For months, the Biden administration has been asking Congress for additional funding to develop new vaccines and prepare for the pandemic. Those pleas have been unsuccessful on Capitol Hill.