Moderna will be ready to distribute an Omicron-specific COVID-19 booster vaccine this fall, its chief medical officer has said – as Covid cases in the United States have increased by 51% in the past two weeks.
Leading vaccine maker Dr Paul Burton has revealed he is now testing an Omicron vaccine which is likely to be ‘even more superior’ to his current one – with ‘large quantities’ expected to be available as early as September.
All Covid vaccines are currently based on the original Wuhan virus, as manufacturers are reluctant to spend months making a new vaccine in case another variant emerges. If approved, Moderna’s shot would be the first to target the Omicron variant.
But more and more scientists have now expressed concern about whether additional extra injections are really needed, saying they only trigger a “temporary boost” in protection. The World Health Organization’s chief scientist, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, said on Monday that there “is no solid evidence” that a fourth shot will be beneficial.
Second boosters are already rolling out for all Americans over 50, but uptake is lagging, with more than half of eligible people yet to get their first top-up. More Covid jabs are expected to be rolled out this fall, similar to the flu, as the country enters its third winter of the pandemic.
It comes as Covid cases in the United States continue to climb to 56,000 a day on average, with a total of 43 states now seeing infections rise. Vermont, Rhode Island and New York all have the biggest outbreaks.
New York today raised its alert level to “medium” after the infection rate topped more than 200 cases per 100,000 people in its five boroughs. No new restrictions will be introduced at this stage, but if it reaches a “high” level, public health chiefs say they will again consider ordering masks to be worn in all indoor spaces.
But admissions to intensive care units remain at half of last summer’s levels with around 2,000 patients currently on the wards. By comparison, last year they never dipped below 4,000. Admissions to hospital with the virus rose 16% in a fortnight, but that figure includes many people who have been tested positive after being admitted to services for something other than a fall. Covid deaths continue to decline.
Moderna’s chief medical officer, Dr. Paul Burton, said today that the leading vaccine maker would be ready to roll out Omicron-specific vaccines this fall. It came as World Health Organization chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan warned there was no strong evidence that fourth doses were needed.
US Covid cases have increased by 50% in a fortnight and are now increasing in the majority of states. The hotspots are Vermont, Rhode Island and New York
But Covid deaths continue to decline, with the majority of states also seeing these begin to slow. But deaths are a lagging indicator, due to how long it takes an infected person to die from the virus.
The map above shows the infection rate in states across the United States. It reveals the hotspots of Vermont, Rhode Island and New York
About 250,000 deaths in southern states could have been avoided if they masked more, scientists say
About 250,000 deaths in southern states during the Covid pandemic could have been prevented if people put more masks on, scientists have claimed.
In the study, experts from Georgetown University looked at excess mortality – the number of deaths above expected levels – from January 2020 to September 2021. This is a better measure of the impact of Covid as it captures virus deaths that were not properly diagnosed and due to the health care crisis.
Scientists found that in southern states – including Texas, Alabama and Georgia – there were 392,000 additional deaths.
But in areas of the Northeast – including New York, Vermont and Rhode Island – there were 152,000 more deaths than expected.
The study was led by Dr. Michael Soto of Georgetown University, who previously successfully urged a Massachusetts-based council to keep a face mask mandate in place through last winter.
Writing in the paper, the scientists said: “Different implementations and adherence to stay-at-home orders, mask use, and other non-pharmaceutical interventions appear to be at least a partial explanation for regional differences in mortality. by Covid.”
It was published in the journal PLOS One.
Dr. Burton told CBS News Confront the Nation that the vaccine maker – behind one of three vaccines used in the United States – would have Omicron-specific injections this fall. Pfizer said in January it would have an Omicron-specific plan ready by March, though it hasn’t been rolled out yet.
Dr Burton said: ‘We announced a new variant-specific booster a few weeks ago that we tested, and we have an additional candidate, our lead candidate, in testing now who I think will be even more superior. .
“We are confident that by the fall of this year we should have large quantities of this new booster vaccine that will protect against omicron and other variants, and truly protect Americans and people around the world. approaching the fall of 2022.”
Moderna has also submitted an application to have its vaccine approved for children aged six months to five years. If this gets the green light, it will make the United States the first country in the world to vaccinate children under the age of two.
Studies have found the vaccine to be about 37% effective against infection in children two to five years old and 51% effective in those under two years of age.
Dr Burton said for parents and caregivers, this means children who receive the vaccine would have their risk of infection “halved”. He added: “I know 50% is often lower than what we’re used to seeing with our vaccine, but that’s because this study was done for [the Omicron wave].’
Still, more scientists raised concerns on Monday, however, that additional stings aren’t necessary.
The WHO has not yet recommended another booster shot, but Dr Swaminathan warned that “there is no strong evidence at this stage” to suggest it would be beneficial.
She said CNBC: ‘What we know from immunology is that if you give another booster you will see a temporary increase in neutralizing antibodies. But what we also found is that these neutralizing antibodies decline quite quickly.
“It happened after the third dose. And it happened again after the fourth dose.
Paul Goepfert, professor of medicine at the University of Alabama, said it “doesn’t do much.”
He added: “I’m not sure we need to go out and jump up and down yelling that everyone has to go overseas.”
Last week, other scientists raised concerns that the United States was moving towards rolling out even more doses, when it is unclear whether they are needed.
Dr. Paul Offit of the Food and Drug Administration’s jab advisory group said at a recent meeting that the only question was “what were we going to boost with, not whether we were going to boost.” He added: “We haven’t defined what the purpose of that extra shot was.”
Several countries, including the UK and Singapore, have approved fourth doses for the most vulnerable groups, but have stopped rolling them out to over-50s, unlike the US.
It has been repeatedly suggested that new Covid vaccines could be rolled out every year, as with the flu. But in recent weeks the scientific consensus has fractured, with more and more experts now suggesting that the extra doses may not be necessary.
It comes as US Covid cases continue to climb amid the emergence of an even more transmissible version of Omicron in New York – but hospitalizations and deaths remain low.
Vermont, with 350 cases per 100,000 people, Rhode Island, at 305, and New York, at 291, are the current hotspots in the United States with the most Covid cases per capita.
For comparison, at the other end of the scale, South Carolina (16.28), Mississippi (24.7) and Wyoming (27.3) have the smallest outbreaks in the nation.
The new Omicron subvariant – scientifically named BA.2.12.1 and considered about 25% more transmissible than the older strain – is currently dominant in all three hotspots and is spreading to other areas along the west coast . It has already reached every corner of the country.
Daily hospital admissions due to the virus are now rising in 36 of 50 states and have risen 16% in two weeks nationwide. But the 17,000 entries per day is barely a tenth of the peak of the Omicron wave, when it reached more than 150,000 per day. Covid deaths continue to decline in 30 states.