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The FDA is considering annual COVID shots. Here’s what to know about the new proposal

Philadelphia Inquirer 1/26/2023 Aubrey Whelan, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Charlotte Schwartz receives her fourth COVID vaccine from Jefferson nursing student Shiraz Gita Vildbaum at Eric's RX Shoppe, in Horsham on Feb. 2, 2022. © JESSICA GRIFFIN/The Philadelphia Inquirer/JESSICA GRIFFIN Charlotte Schwartz receives her fourth COVID vaccine from Jefferson nursing student Shiraz Gita Vildbaum at Eric's RX Shoppe, in Horsham on Feb. 2, 2022.

Americans may be urged to get an annual COVID shot, just like the flu, under a federal proposal that was considered Thursday by the Food and Drug Administration’s independent vaccine experts.

Here’s what to know about the latest discussion around COVID vaccines.

Why is the government considering annual COVID shots?

Over the course of the pandemic, several different variants of COVID have caused surges in cases. (Right now, a version of the omicron variant, XBB.1.5, is behind most new COVID cases in the Northeast.)

The newest COVID booster shots are an attempt to keep up with those variants. While the original COVID vaccines are “monovalent” vaccines, meaning they only protect against the original strain of COVID, the booster shots currently on offer are “bivalent,” meaning they protect against the original strain and the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron variants.

The FDA said that because new variants continue to crop up, and because the protection granted by vaccines and boosters can wane over time, it’s important to keep updating vaccines and the schedules they’re delivered on.

But there are several different COVID-19 vaccines approved in the U.S., with different immunization schedules that can complicate widespread vaccine campaigns, the FDA says. So the FDA is now asking its board to discuss simplifying that vaccine schedule.

How would the new vaccine schedules work?

The FDA has proposed a vaccine campaign for COVID that’s similar to the annual flu shot campaign, where COVID variants would be identified in the summer and vaccines targeting them would launch before the fall, the AP reported.

Evidence suggests that most people will need only one dose of a booster vaccine to protect themselves against COVID, but immunocompromised people, young children, and older adults might need two doses, the agency says.

Has the FDA officially recommended annual COVID shots?

Not yet. The vaccine advisory board was discussing this proposal Thursday. STAT News reported that board members expressed support for the annual-shot plan, but were not asked to vote on it.

STAT also reported that the vaccine advisory board voted to require future COVID shots — both the primary series of shots and boosters — to protect against the same strains of the virus. That means that going forward, all COVID vaccines, whether a first shot or a booster, will protect against both the original strain and the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron strains.

Do the COVID boosters work against new variants?

Two studies released this week suggest that the current bivalent boosters offer more effective protection against omicron variants than the original monovalent vaccines, which offer protection against only the original strain of COVID.

A New England Journal of Medicine study concluded that people who received a bivalent booster shot were less likely to be hospitalized from an omicron infection than those who received a monovalent booster.

Another study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the bivalent COVID boosters, which were designed to protect against the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron strains, can also protect against two newer omicron strains, XBB and XBB.1.5, for at least three months in people who’ve gotten between two and four doses of the original COVID vaccine.

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