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Northeast Ohio doctors break down possible new variant-specific COVID boosters

Doctors say we’re expecting to hear more from the FDA and CDC in mid-September about booster shots that target the BA.4/BA.5 variants.

CLEVELAND — The U.S. could be learning more about booster shots addressing the latest omicron variants of COVID-19 by mid-September, according to local doctors. These new boosters from Pfizer and Moderna would target the BA.4 and BA.5 variants of omicron.

In June, the FDA advised vaccine manufacturers to update their COVID-19 vaccines to “add an omicron BA.4/5 spike protein component to the current vaccine composition to create a two component (bivalent) booster vaccine, so that the modified vaccines can potentially be used starting in early to mid-fall 2022.”

On Monday, the United Kingdom approved the updated Moderna booster vaccine.

“The intent of the new variant vaccines are to target more specifically these variants, to actually try and reduce transmission and people spreading this virus from person to person,” said Dr. Ted Ross, global director of vaccine development at Cleveland Clinic.

Dr. Ross said these new Omicron variants of BA.4 and BA.5 can transmit between people more efficiently, and appear to evade, to an extent, immunity.

“Having these new vaccines will target the regions that have changed from the original strains of SARS-CoV-2 to these new variant BA.4 and BA.5,” Dr. Ross said. “And BA.5 has now actually taken over.”

According to data from the CDC, the BA.5 subvariant makes up almost 90% of cases in the United States.

Dr. Amy Edwards, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at UH Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital, said these latest variants appear to be sticking around.

“The rumors that we’re hearing is that the antibody response is much better, you get a lot more neutralizing antibodies, and thus the protection would be better,” said Dr. Edwards of these new boosters. “We’ve known for a while, really the last couple variants, Delta now Omicron, that we were kind of losing the vaccine. Remember the original vaccine is designed against the parent strain.”

Dr. Edwards also said that she’s hopeful that these new boosters, if approved, would provide more protection, and for a longer length of time.

“I have said for some time I wish we had a better shot,” she said. “Well, here it is. This is a better shot. This one is specifically designed for the variant that’s currently in circulation.”

In July, the Department of Health and Human Services announced the federal government purchased 66 million doses of Moderna’s new variant-specific booster, in addition to the 105 million doses of Pfizer’s new booster.

According to Dr. Edwards, the data on these Pfizer and Moderna boosters is currently being reviewed. Both the FDA and CDC will look at the data, with news expected from the agencies on the future of the boosters in mid-September. From there, the boosters could be granted emergency use authorization.

“These manufacturers present their data to these government regulatory agencies in the Fall, and I could see as early as the holiday time people getting approval to start getting these boosters,” said Dr. Ross.

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