COVID vaccine strategy to get an overhaul by FDA : Shots - Health News The new approach would simplify vaccination guidance so that, every fall, people would get a new shot, updated to try to match whatever variant is dominant.

The FDA considers a major shift in the nation's COVID vaccine strategy

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

NPR has learned that the Food and Drug Administration wants to simplify the nation's COVID-19 vaccine strategy.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The goal is to make COVID vaccines a little more like the annual flu shot.

FADEL: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has the story, and he joins us now. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So what is the FDA considering exactly?

STEIN: A top federal official who is not authorized to speak publicly tells me the agency is considering making the whole vaccine regimen much less complicated and confusing. Right now, getting vaccinated means first getting what's called the primary vaccinations - two shots with the original vaccine spaced weeks apart. That's followed months later by at least one booster, which used to be one of the original vaccines but is now one of the bivalent shots targeting omicron. Basically, the FDA is considering doing away with that whole way of thinking about it. Instead, most people would just get whatever the latest version of the vaccine is, probably each fall like the flu shot. They wouldn't have to worry about how many shots they've already had and, you know, which one they got when or any of that. And that one shot would be updated every year to try to get as close a match as possible to whatever variant will be dominating each winter, again, just like the flu shot. And finally, the FDA is hoping to make the shots interchangeable so the brand wouldn't matter anymore.

FADEL: OK, simpler. Why is the FDA considering this now?

STEIN: The idea is we're moving towards COVID becoming an endemic disease. It's not going away. COVID's going to sicken and kill many people for the foreseeable future. But unless some new, more dangerous version of the virus suddenly emerges, we might be settling into a more predictable coexistence with the virus. And the goal is to make vaccination, which is the major weapon for protecting ourselves, simpler and hopefully more appealing. This shift is based on the reality that at this point in the pandemic, most people have a lot of immunity, either from having gotten vaccinated and boosted or infected or both.

FADEL: What do immunologists think about this proposal?

STEIN: You know, many of the independent scientists I've talked to about this think simplifying the process makes a lot of sense and endorsed the idea of regularly updating the vaccines. Here's Deepta Bhattacharya. He's an immunologist at the University of Arizona.

DEEPTA BHATTACHARYA: As far as the tools that we have right now, I think it just makes the most sense to, you know, plan to update each year as close as we can to the currently circulating variant. So I think all of these things that, you know, the FDA is considering make a lot of sense.

STEIN: But some people think people may still need to be boosted more often than just once a year. And other scientists question whether updating the boosters does make sense. They doubt the omicron boosters are really much better and argue the virus is changing so fast that it's pointless to try to chase the latest variant. It might be better to invest in next-generation vaccines, like, you know, nasal spray vaccines to protect people against even catching the virus and to focus more on just getting more people vaccinated.

FADEL: So how would the FDA actually make this happen?

STEIN: An FDA advisory committee meets Thursday to recommend how best to proceed. And if the committee endorses the approach, the FDA would hash out the details. And FDA advisers would meet again in the spring to pick the specific strains of the virus the new shots should target.

FADEL: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thanks, Rob.

STEIN: You bet.

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