People likely to need annual COVID-19 vaccine boosters, health officials say

Health officials on Tuesday signaled that people are likely to need an annual COVID-19 booster shot in the same way that people get annual influenza shots as the virus continues to evolve.

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“It is becoming increasingly clear that, looking forward with the COVID-19 pandemic, in the absence of a dramatically different variant, we likely are moving towards a path with a vaccination cadence similar to that of the annual influenza vaccine,” the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said at a news conference with the White House COVID-19 Response Team. He added that most people would likely need “annual, updated COVID-19 shots matched to the currently circulating strains.”

People who are vulnerable to severe outcomes of the disease will likely need more frequent vaccinations, Fauci said.

The announcement came after health officials recommended newly formulated bivalent vaccine boosters from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech that target two dominant subvariants of omicron alongside the original strain of the virus.

“Barring any new variant curveballs – we’ve seen curveballs – but barring those variant curveballs, for a large majority of Americans, we are moving to a point where a single annual COVID shot should provide a high degree of protection against serious illness all year,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said Tuesday, calling it “an important milestone.”

“We have watched omicron over the last nine months. We’ve watched it evolve. It has taught us a lot about this virus and how it is evolving right now. What we have also seen is … if you’re an average-risk person and if you have stayed up to date on your vaccine, your risk of getting into serious trouble against this virus is really pretty low. … I think that gives us a lot of confidence.”

The newly endorsed bivalent vaccines protect against the original strain of COVID-19 and target the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of the omicron variant, which accounted for more than 90% of the COVID-19 cases seen in the U.S. from the week beginning Aug. 28, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, said Tuesday that modeling projections have shown that annual COVID-19 booster shots could prevent as many as 100,000 hospitalizations and 9,000 deaths.

“CDC and (the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices) recommend that everyone, regardless of the number or type of previous COVID-19 doses, receives a COVID-19 bivalent vaccine this fall,” she said. “You can receive an updated vaccine dose at least two months after your last COVID-19 vaccine dose.”

As of last week, just over 79% of the U.S. population has gotten at least one dose of any of the available COVID-19 vaccines, according to the CDC. Over 67% of Americans have been fully vaccinated, and more than 48% of those who have been fully vaccinated have gotten at least one booster shot, CDC data shows.

Since the start of the pandemic, officials have confirmed more than 94.8 million COVID-19 infections and reported over 1 million deaths nationwide, according to numbers compiled by Johns Hopkins University. More than 606 million COVID-19 cases have been reported worldwide, resulting in 6.5 million deaths, according to the university.