WASHINGTON — The new COVID-19 vaccines that were finally approved last week mark a new phase in the fight against the disease, the Biden administration’s top health officials said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Originally released in late 2020, 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 vast majority of Americans, we are moving to a point where a single annual COVID injection should provide a high level of protection against serious illness year-round,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House Coordinator for the Pandemic Response. Jha called the new vaccines a “major milestone,” even though he warned that “variant curveballs” could undermine hopes for boosted immunity.
“For the first time since December 2020, these vaccines – our vaccines – have overtaken the virus,” said Jha, noting that the United States is the first country to develop an Omicron-specific vaccine. He added that the Biden administration is working with states and municipalities to distribute the vaccine in “tens of thousands” of locations in the coming days.
As with previous COVID-19 vaccination efforts, shots will be free. All people 12 years and older are eligible.
“We are likely moving down a path with vaccination frequency similar 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 simultaneously, in hopes of avoiding a “twindemia” caused by two respiratory viruses circulating at the same time.
“I do believe that is why God gave us two arms,” Jha joked, “one for the flu shot and the other for the COVID shot.”
Targeting the new vaccines at the strains circulating today is an implicit bet that the virus will continue to evolve along the Omicron pathway, not in some 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.
If the virus only experiences what Fauci called a “small drift” of BA.5, the bivalent vaccine should be able to recognize the difference. But Fauci, who has battled infectious disease for four decades, warned that the pathogen originally known as SARS-CoV-2 could evolve in a way that renders 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 need 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 ensure pandemic preparedness. Those pleas have met with no success on Capitol Hill.