White House signals most people will only need annual Covid booster

As part of its push to encourage vaccine-weary Americans to get the updated Covid shot, the White House put forth a new selling point Tuesday: to view it as a first annual shot, akin to the annual flu shot.

The messaging from the White House — part of a briefing where health officials outlined the rollout of the new bivalent booster shots authorized last week — reflects another transition point in the country’s fight against the coronavirus. Federal health officials last month, for example, tossed out quarantine and certain testing guidelines.

“It is becoming increasingly clear, that looking forward with the Covid-19 pandemic, in the absence of a dramatically different variant, 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,” Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease official, said at the briefing.

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Overall, the signal from the administration has been that the country has moved past the emergency phase of the pandemic, even as it urges people to get vaccinated and boosted to ensure they are well-protected. Even though Covid is not the threat it once was, some 400 people are still dying a day in this country, with higher death rates among people who are unvaccinated and who have not been boosted.

Both Fauci and Ashish Jha, the White House’s Covid-19 coordinator, added a few caveats to their forecasts. Some “variant curveball” could undermine the long-term vaccination plan, Jha said. And certain groups that remain vulnerable to severe outcomes from Covid even with vaccines — Jha cited his parents in their 80s and a friend who recently had a liver transplant — might need more frequent boosting.

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“Barring those variant curveballs, for a large majority of Americans, we are moving to the point where a single annual Covid shot should provide a high degree of protection against serious illness all year,” Jha said. “That’s an important milestone.”

Some experts have argued the country was defaulting to an annual Covid booster program, without building the evidence that yearly shots will be needed going forward. On the other hand, the immunity provided by existing Covid vaccines does wane over time, and experts are still sussing out how long the protection against severe disease lasts generally. But federal health officials have also said that they needed to move past the point where people were recommended to get shots more than once a year. Demand for shots has waned with each subsequent round.

At the briefing, the health officials touted the new bivalent shots, which include components that target both the original virus and the BA.5 and BA.4 forms of the Omicron variant that are now dominant. The shots are rolling out and are available for people 12 and up, only as boosters. (Only the original vaccines are authorized for the primary series of shots for now.)

Experts have different views about how much of an upgrade the bivalent shots will offer over the original shots, and their impact will depend on how many people roll up their sleeves ahead of a possible fall or winter surge.

But Jha, encouraging people to get boosted, argued that it was “reasonable to expect” that the updated vaccines will provide better protection against infection than the first-edition vaccines.