Since the coronavirus hit the United States in 2020, Americans have wondered what normal life with covid-19 will look like, and when the country would get there. The Biden administration this week mapped out a vision for the near future, in which Americans should expect to get yearly coronavirus vaccinations, akin to the flu vaccines that come every fall. “A single, annual covid shot should provide a high degree of protection against serious illness all year,” declared White House coronavirus coordinator Ashish Jha. The announcement came as new “bivalent” booster shots, formulated to protect against multiple coronavirus strains, rolled out across the country.
Yet perpetually chasing new strains with boosters is only a stopgap tactic. With substantial public funding, the country could aim higher. Congress should provide the money the Biden administration needs to fight a robust battle against the coronavirus — and to prepare for the next pandemic.
As with the flu shot, the administration’s plan is to allow vaccine-makers to quickly adapt their shots to new variants. Public health officials will monitor circulating strains, and vaccine manufacturers will fine-tune their jabs to match. The new U.S. bivalent booster targets the omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, the currently dominant forms of the virus. Other countries might make different bets — Canada, for example, targets BA.1 in its new bivalent booster.
Yearly vaccinations will work, administration officials say, barring some new variant “curveball.” Given how the coronavirus has mutated to date, that is a massive “if.” With the flu shot, the experts do not always succeed in predicting which strains will circulate. This can limit the flu shots’ efficacy in any given year. And the coronavirus might be more challenging to forecast. Public health officials track what forms of the flu virus circulate during winter in the Southern Hemisphere — summertime in the North — which can give them a leg up. The coronavirus might not evolve in neat annual cycles.
Another obstacle is not scientific, but social. There is a great deal of vaccine hesitancy focused uniquely on coronavirus shots. Misinformation continues to circulate about revolutionary mRNA vaccines, wonder drugs that have saved countless lives during the pandemic, in part spread by sports stars and other prominent people setting bad examples. Uptake of boosters has lagged in the United States — more than half of those eligible for boosters have not gotten them — even as some 400 people still die daily of covid.
The administration is smart to piggyback on the extensive infrastructure that already exists to get flu shots in arms. Vaccines must be ubiquitous, in convenient locations, with employers sponsoring vaccination campaigns, and pharmacies and doctors’ offices issuing seemingly incessant reminders. And, unlike flu shots, coronavirus jabs should be free. That will depend on Congress providing money. President Biden asked Congress this month to allocate $22.4 billion for coronavirus response. Lawmakers should not drag their feet.
Nor should they expect this to be the last time the federal government must invest heavily in pandemic efforts. The nation needs a massive push to create a universal coronavirus vaccine that will work against all variants and for a long duration. Many efforts are underway, but they are moving slowly. The country needs more therapeutics for people who still get covid. It requires a beefed-up disease surveillance system, not only to track coronavirus variants but to detect new biological threats as they crop up. And Congress should invest in infrastructure to create and deploy rapidly future vaccines against as-of-yet unknown diseases, as soon as they hit.
All eligible Americans should get their boosters. They should also hope for a new normal that is more, well, normal.
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