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Get ready for Covid-19 vaccine booster shots at your next physical, experts warn

The coronavirus has mutated thousands of times since it was first found in humans, but so far the vaccines have been effective against the mutations.
Image: A UCHealth registered nurse administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a mass Covid-19 vaccination event on Jan. 30, 2021 in Denver.
A UCHealth registered nurse administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a mass Covid-19 vaccination event on Jan. 30, 2021 in Denver.Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images file

Will your yearly physical include a Covid-19 vaccine booster shot? Probably, experts said Wednesday.

The coronavirus has shown it can mutate like the flu and the vaccines will have to be updated to counter new strains, they said.

“I think a big question on this coronavirus is, is it something that we’re gonna have forever,” Dr. Richard Besser, a former acting director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC News senior medical correspondent Dr. John Torres. “This virus is showing an incredible ability to mutate, to change, to adapt, in a sense, to everything we’re putting against it.”

Besser, who is currently president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, addressed the issue after Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky joined the growing chorus of public health officials and infectious disease experts who have warned that Covid-19 is likely to be an endemic disease.

That means Covid-19 will stick around like the flu, though not at the same level that we are seeing now.

“Unfortunately, as (the virus) spreads, it can also mutate,” Gorsky told CNBC’s Meg Tirrell. “Every time it mutates, it’s almost like another click of the dial so to speak where we can see another variant, another mutation that can have an impact on its ability to fend off antibodies or to have a different kind of response not only to a therapeutic but also to a vaccine.”

Gorsky’s remarks came two days after Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, said during a White House briefing that it’s vitally important to stay ahead of the mutant variants of Covid-19.

Fauci and other scientists believe the coronavirus has undergone thousands of mutations since it was first detected in humans. While most ended up being inconsequential, the experts are concerned about any alterations that could make the virus more contagious or make the available vaccines less effective.

Summer Johnson McGee, who is dean of the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences, said it remains to be seen “whether Covid-19 vaccination will be needed annually or whether we will need booster shots for new variants each year.”

But she instead stressed that the system for distributing vaccines in the United States needs to be updated so that we are prepared for yearly boosters.

“We need to plan and prepare our health care infrastructure and the public to engage in mass vaccination every year,” McGee said. “We need to learn how we can do mass vaccination more efficiently and with greater participation so that, if this becomes an annual process, we can achieve our vaccination targets much more easily and faster.”

Dr. Paul Nee, an infectious disease specialist at Nuvance Health in Connecticut, agreed “there is a distinct possibility we may be looking at booster shots in the future.” But when asked if patients would balk at another injection, Nee said he didn’t think so.

“I think, in general, much of the public has been accepting of the vaccine,” he said. “We are already starting to see the benefits. Here in Connecticut we are starting to see a decline in new cases.”

As of Feb. 6, new cases of Covid-19 had dropped by nearly 20 percent compared to the previous week, NBC News reported Monday.

But the United States has reported 27.3 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and nearly 471,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, according to the latest NBC News data. Both are world-leading figures.