The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. While in the U.S. a third of the population are now fully vaccinated, many countries are struggling with rampant infection rates and record death tolls as new mutations emerge worldwide. And even in developed nations where new COVID-19 cases keep falling thanks to vaccine rollouts, there is now no way of knowing exactly how long immunity will last.
Both realities call for a serious discussion about a booster shot or an entirely new vaccine that can adapt to the constantly changing virus.
On Tuesday, the Biden administration’s chief science officer of the COVID-19 response team, David Kessler, said during a Senate hearing that the government has enough funding to buy booster shots and provide them to Americans for free if needed. Kessler said the CDC is still evaluating whether booster shots will be necessary in the U.S.
Why We Might Need Booster Shots
There are two reasons everyone may need a booster shot at some point in the future, explains Dan Barouch, director of the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School.
The first is to make up for the “natural waning” of vaccine immunity, Barouch told ABC News, and the second is to tackle new variants that might escape the protection of first-generation vaccines.
As far as viral mutations are concerned, some experts believe that COVID-19 vaccines could eventually evolve into an annual requirement like flu shots. Others, including the World Health Organization, argue that the priority now should be increasing the supply of first-generation vaccines as they are highly effective at preventing severe illness and death for newer variants despite reduced efficacy at overall infection.
mRNA Tech Provides a “Fast Track” for Booster Shots
It took drugmakers globally nearly a year to develop the first-generation COVID-19 vaccine. And making another one won’t be easy. So far, the best hope for booster shots hinges on makers of mRNA-based vaccines, because the novel technology allows for rapid modifications of the vaccine.
Last week, Moderna released positive preliminary results showing a third booster shot could both enhance immunity and add protection against two highly concerning variants: B.1.351, which was first identified in South Africa, and P.1, first identified in Brazil.
“It’s a very good piece of news,” said Moderna President Stephen Hoge. “Our current expectation is that we’re going to need a booster probably annually for the near term, and then maybe in the future we’ll be able to do it much less frequently.”
Pfizer’s CEO has made similar predictions about taking annual shot. The drugmaker is also developing a specific booster shot targeting a new variant that’s responsible for the recent surge in infections in India.
“We want to make sure to have a vaccine available before the variant will raise levels of infections that are dangerous for the society,” Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla told ABC News. “We should be able to produce it in less than 100 days. And this is our goal right now, so that we can always stay ahead of the [virus].”