In a landmark decision, an independent advisory panel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that all Americans aged 6 months and above receive updated Covid vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. This move marks a significant step towards ensuring the availability of the shots to all Americans in the coming days. The panel, consisting of thirteen advisors, voted in favor of the “universal” recommendation, with only one member dissenting. However, final approval from CDC Director Mandy Cohen is still pending. Once approved, the distribution of the new shots will commence at pharmacies, local health departments, and clinics nationwide within 48 hours.
During the advisory meeting, Dr. Beth Bell, a clinical professor at the University of Washington and a panel member, emphasized the importance of vaccination. She stated that vaccination is the key to preventing serious illness and death across all age groups. Dr. Bell firmly supported the universal recommendation, highlighting the fact that Covid is a vaccine-preventable disease. However, there were some advisors who argued in favor of limiting the recommendation to individuals at high risk of severe illness, such as the frail, older population, and those who are immunocompromised.
The advisory panel’s “universal” recommendation comes just a day after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the two mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. These vaccines are specifically designed to target the omicron subvariant XBB.1.5. It’s worth noting that the FDA’s approval is for individuals aged 12 and older, while emergency use authorization remains in place for children aged 6 months to 11 years. Additionally, the FDA is currently reviewing an updated vaccine from Novavax, which utilizes protein-based technology.
Similar to the yearly flu shot, public health officials are advocating for annual updates to Covid vaccines to target more recent strains of the virus. The introduction of new vaccines aims to build up immunity against emerging variants and prevent severe illness and hospitalization. Pfizer, Moderna, and Novavax have all released initial trial data demonstrating the efficacy of their updated shots against the dominant EG.5 variant, closely related to XBB.1.5. These strains account for a significant proportion of Covid cases in the United States.
As the United States enters the fall and winter seasons, with the corresponding rise in respiratory virus transmission, the CDC anticipates a surge in Covid cases. Hospitalizations have already increased for seven consecutive weeks, reaching 17,418 for the week ending August 26. While this number remains lower than the summer peak in 2022, the CDC warns of further increases as respiratory syncytial virus and flu also tend to spread at higher levels during this period.
The arrival of the updated vaccines coincides with the conclusion of the U.S. Covid public health emergency. Manufacturers will now sell their vaccines directly to healthcare providers at a cost of over $120 per dose in the private market. Previously, the government had purchased vaccines at a discounted rate for distribution to all Americans free of charge. However, the vast majority of Americans will still have access to the new vaccines at no cost through private insurance or government payers like Medicare. For the uninsured or underinsured, the Biden administration has implemented the temporary “Bridge Access Program,” offering free shots at various healthcare settings until December 2024.
The universal recommendation for updated Covid vaccines represents a major milestone in the fight against the pandemic. By expanding access to vaccines, health officials aim to mitigate the impact of emerging variants and prevent severe illness and hospitalization. As the threat of Covid continues to evolve, annual updates to vaccines will be crucial in maintaining the effectiveness of immunization efforts. The availability of free vaccines through various programs further ensures equitable access for all Americans. By embracing universal vaccination, we can collectively work towards a healthier and safer future.