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White House touts omicron-specific boosters ahead of feared winter covid wave

The omicron variant of covid-19 has spun off into dozens of immune-dodging subvariants. The Post's Frances Sellers explains the threat of these new strains. (Video: Jackson Barton, Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

The White House on Tuesday announced a six-week push ahead of the winter travel season to increase booster uptake in seniors, minority communities and rural areas — all of which have disproportionately suffered severe disease and death during the coronavirus pandemic.

Anthony S. Fauci, who serves as President Biden’s chief medical adviser, emphasized that vaccine effectiveness wanes over time and that the coronavirus is an unusual foe because of the emergence of new variants every few months. He pointed to data released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that the recently authorized omicron-specific boosters protect against new variants.

“It is clear now, despite an initial bit of confusion,” he said.

Fauci — in his last briefing before his planned retirement in December, after more than four decades in government fighting HIV/AIDS and Ebola and serving as the face of the scientific community during the coronavirus pandemic — urged the public to get their shots: “The final message I give you from this podium is that please, for your own safety, for that of your family, get your updated covid-19 shot as soon as you’re eligible.”

The Biden administration has faced growing frustration over its bivalent booster rollout.

The United States spent nearly $5 billion to buy 171 million bivalent boosters from Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech and from Moderna. But efforts to market the shots to the American public have been limited, and booster uptake has remained sluggish since it was approved Aug. 31. The CDC estimates that only about 11 percent of people 5 and older have received a bivalent booster.

The new CDC study represents the first published estimates of efficacy based on real-world data for the bivalent booster shots. Previous studies have measured whether the bivalent vaccines increase the levels of virus-blocking antibodies in people’s blood.

Tuesday’s findings confirmed the importance of getting a new shot to boost immunity against the coronavirus as it continues to evolve and produce immune-evading variants. Last winter’s omicron wave made the original monovalent mRNA vaccines less effective against symptomatic infection, prompting a race to create new vaccines that incorporated components from the omicron strains, BA.4 and BA.5. The new boosters — the only shots available at pharmacies and doctors’ offices across the country — appear to offer only a modest increase in protection against infection.

“This is a tremendous volume of data in a short period of time,” said Francesca Beaudoin, a clinical epidemiologist at Brown University. Overall, she said, the study shows “there is a real but very modest benefit to the bivalent vaccine among people who have already been vaccinated, who are healthy and who show up” for shots.

Moderna says new booster increases protection from omicron subvariants

But Beaudoin and others described the study as “underwhelming” because it does not shed light on key questions such as the ability of the new boosters to protect against severe disease.

That raises questions about the goal of the bivalent vaccines, said Paul Offit, director of the vaccine education center and professor of pediatrics in the infectious diseases division at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“The only reasonable goal is to prevent serious illness — a goal that has largely been reached with monovalent vaccines,” said Offit, who has previously expressed skepticism about booster shots. “We are still waiting for one shred of evidence that this bivalent vaccine or any bivalent is better than what we had.”

Meanwhile, the virus continues to evolve so fast that the BA.4 and BA.5 variants are no longer dominant.

“This should be a cautionary tale for what happens when you try to chase these variants,” Offit said.

Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said during Tuesday’s news briefing that updated vaccines probably will be required at some point next year. A universal vaccine that targets all variants is necessary for long-term management of the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

“We are at a point where this virus continues to evolve very, very rapidly,” Jha said.

The United States is falling behind in some technologies related to viruses and more resources are needed, Jha said. “All I can say is Congress needs to do its job and step up and protect the American people.”

Pfizer says new booster shot increases omicron-fighting antibodies

The CDC study, which drew on data from the Increasing Community Access to Testing program — designed to make testing more available in areas with high social vulnerability — included more than 350,000 tests at almost 10,000 retail pharmacies between Sept. 14 and Nov. 11, among adults who reported symptoms consistent with covid-19. At registration, participants reported their vaccination history, current symptoms and previous infection.

The CDC researchers then calculated vaccine effectiveness, the measure used to establish the reduction of disease among vaccinated people compared with those who remain unvaccinated. The study found that bivalent boosters provided significant additional protection against symptomatic infection in people who had already received at least two shots of the monovalent vaccine. The benefit of the bivalent boosters increased with more time passed since a person’s last monovalent shot.

Celine Gounder, an infectious-disease specialist and senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, also noted that the study does not address the question that has shaped the Biden administration’s recent strategy.

“It doesn’t show the bivalents are better than the original boosters,” Gounder said.

But most people are asking a more basic question — “Should I get a booster?” — and the new study confirms the answer, Gounder said: “Get it.”

Carolyn Y. Johnson contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will probably challenge a key line of treatment for people with compromised immune systems — the drugs known as monoclonal antibodies.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

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