Covid vaccinations will likely become an annual affair, White House officials said Tuesday, with a schedule resembling that of flu shots.
"In the absence of a dramatically different variants, we likely are moving towards a path with a vaccination cadence similar to that of the annual influenza vaccine, with annual updated Covid-19 shots matched to the currently circulating strains for most of the population," Dr. Anthony Fauci said at a White House briefing.
The reasoning behind this expectation, according to Fauci and White House Covid-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha, has to do with improved protection from newly updated Covid booster shots.
The updated boosters, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Thursday, target both the original coronavirus strain and the currently circulating omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5. Trial data suggests these shots should yield better protection against both infection and transmission, as well as more lasting protection against severe illness, Jha said — unless a new variant emerges that significantly upends vaccine effectiveness.
BA.5 makes up more than 88% of coronavirus specimens and BA.4 sublineages account for more than 11%, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday.
“For the first time since December of 2020, these vaccines, our vaccines, have caught up with the virus,” Jha said.
“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,” he added.
The CDC recommends that all teenagers and adults get the updated booster shots after at least two months have passed since their last Covid vaccine or previous booster.
Going forward, Fauci and Jha said, they expect similar booster updates to account for dominant omicron subvariants. People with underlying health issues may need to get vaccinated more than once a year, though, Fauci said.
However, experts aren't yet sure how much the updated boosters will really improve protection. The CDC authorized the reformulated shots based on tests in mice, plus human trial data that looked at a similar vaccine targeting the original omicron strain, BA.1. That data showed that updated boosters produced higher levels of antibodies than the original vaccines — a sign of stronger, more lasting protection.
Omicron and its subvariants have been dominant in the U.S. since December. Although the virus has incurred small changes, or drifts, as it acquires new mutations, its fundamental behavior has stayed the same. For that reason, disease experts are optimistic that yearly shots may be sufficient to protect against future versions of the virus.
"If people stay up to date on their vaccines, if people get treated if they have a breakthrough infection, we can make deaths from this virus vanishingly rare," Jha said.
The U.S. is still seeing a weekly average of around 450 Covid deaths per day, according to NBC News' tally.