The world cannot simply boost its way out of the coronavirus pandemic using existing vaccines, a group of experts said Tuesday, as they highlighted the need for new jabs that are better at keeping people from becoming infected in the first place.
The World Health Organization’s technical advisory group on COVID-19 vaccine composition, known by the acronym TAG-Co-VAC, said new variants, including the highly transmissible omicron variant, show that it’s not enough to protect people against severe illness.
Omicron has rapidly spread to 149 countries and become by far the dominant strain in Europe and the main variant behind new cases in the U.S. And while data so far suggest it’s less lethal than earlier variants, it is rapidly filling hospitals and overwhelming healthcare workers, and showing no signs of peaking.
There are currently more Americans in hospitals with COVID-19 than at the peak last winter, government data show, and case numbers have climbed more than 200% in the last two weeks.
“A vaccination strategy based on repeated booster doses of the original vaccine composition is unlikely to be appropriate or sustainable,” the WHO group said in a statement.
“The TAG-CO-VAC considers that COVID-19 vaccines that have high impact on prevention of infection and transmission, in addition to the prevention of severe disease and death, are needed and should be developed,” said the statement. “Until such vaccines are available, and as the SARS-CoV-2 virus evolves, the composition of current COVID-19 vaccines may need to be updated, to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines continue to provide WHO-recommended levels of protection against infection and disease by VOCs, including Omicron and future variants.”
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The group backed the WHO’s position that it’s crucial to get primary doses to those parts of the world that remain unvaccinated as a key measure to prevent the emergence of future variants, which may prove resistant to the current vaccines.
“Omicron is unlikely to be the last VOC,” or variant of concern, the group said, noting that it reduces the effectiveness of current vaccines. That’s one reason omicron has spread so fast, as it causes breakthrough infections in people who have been fully vaccinated and even among those who have received a booster shot.
“In practical terms, while some countries may recommend booster doses of vaccine, the immediate priority for the world is accelerating access to the primary vaccination, particularly for groups at greater risk of developing severe disease,” said the statement.
Israel is one country that is already considering offering a second booster, or fourth shot, to vulnerable people, such as the elderly and immunocompromised.
The TAG-CO-VAC statement called on vaccine developers to seek ways to “elicit immune responses that are broad, strong, and long-lasting in order to reduce the need for successive booster doses.”
Options include a monovalent vaccine that is effective against predominant circulating variants, or a multivalent vaccine containing antigens from many variants of concern. A third option would be a pan–SARS-CoV-2 vaccine that would be “a more sustainable long-term option that would effectively be variant-proof.”
The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 climbed to 311.1 million Tuesday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. The death toll climbed above 5.49 million.
The U.S. leads the world with 61.7 million cases and 840,316 fatalities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that about 208 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 62.6% of the overall population, inclusive of children who are not yet eligible.
Some 75.8 million have received a booster, equal to 36.5% of the fully vaccinated.