The Biden administration said the fast-moving BA.5 variant of the coronavirus is a stark but manageable challenge, unveiling a plan that relies on frequent testing, antiviral drugs and up-to-date vaccinations while stopping short of an immediate expansion of the booster campaign as drugmakers reformulate their shots.
The new variant and a related one, BA.4, have become dominant in the U.S. and appear to transmit faster than previous forms of the virus and evade prior immunity — even as polling and general behavior suggest Americans would quit worrying about the pandemic.
U.S. hospitalizations have risen 17% over the past two weeks and reached a daily average of 33,000, the highest level since March.
“We have been tracking BA.4 and BA.5 for months. We’ve been clear-eyed that these kinds of subvariants were always a possibility,” White House COVID-19 Coordinator Ashish Jha said. “We can get through whatever Mother Nature throws at us in the next four, six, eight weeks ahead and whatever Mother Nature throws at us this fall and winter.”
The White House COVID-19 team said BA.5 does not appear to cause more severe disease in vaccination persons. For that reason, officials pleaded with Americans to stay up-to-date with their vaccine schedules, particularly any person over age 50 who has not gotten a booster during the 2022 calendar year.
“If you have not gotten one this year, please go get another vaccine shot,” Dr. Jha said. “We can prevent serious illness. We can keep people out of the hospital and especially the ICU.”
The White House released a BA.5 strategy Tuesday that did not recommend a fourth shot for all adults, despite reports that it was under consideration.
Dr. Jha said the COVID-19 team has “conversations all the time” about its response but any decision to expand eligibility will be up to U.S. regulators and scientists.
The FDA hasn’t authorized another booster for Americans under age 50 since November, sparking concerns about waning immunity.
Moves to authorize a fourth shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines would spark a debate about whether they are truly needed, or if the government is simply providing the option.
“I know the FDA is considering this, looking at it,” Dr. Jha said. “I know CDC scientists are thinking about this and looking at the data as well.”
Any decision to open the booster floodgates would be a departure from the stated plan to combat the virus this year.
For now, the FDA is officially planning to reformulate vaccines so that they target both the original strain of the virus and the BA.4 and BA.5 variants in a campaign this October.
“It could be a little earlier, it could be a little later,” Dr. Jha said.
Dr. Jha said older Americans cleared for a booster should get one now, saying it wouldn’t preclude them from seeking a variant-specific shot toward the end of the year.
It isn’t clear whether the government would compel older persons who get a shot this summer to wait four or five months before getting the variant-specific shot — pushing eligibility deeper into fall or winter — but Dr. Jha suggested the interval isn’t firmly fixed and that people should get protected now.
For now, the White House is pointing to the array of tools that exist to combat BA.5, including the Paxlovid pills from Pfizer that can stop the virus from replicating and the prevalence of at-home tests, which can be used to screen family members before gatherings.
The White House plan also encouraged facilities to improve their ventilation.
At the same time, Dr. Jha acknowledged the ever-shifting virus is a challenge that demands better shots in the future, such as nasal sprays that stop transmission or a pan-coronavirus vaccine that can stymie a wide range of pathogens.
“We clearly need a new next-generation vaccine,” Dr. Jha said. “There’s a lot of effort here, you’ll hear more from us in the days and weeks ahead.”
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.