FDA Panel Recommends New COVID-19 Shots To Target Omicron Variant
Nurse Practitioner Terri Welch administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine to a patient at the Haxby and Wigginton Group Medical Practice in Haxby, northern England on December 22, 2020.

A panel of independent advisers that works with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recommended producing new COVID-19 vaccines to target the Omicron variant.

By a 19-2 vote, the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) approved a plan to have new vaccines ready by early October. The panel said the newly formulated vaccines are needed because new subvariants of the Omicron strain appear to be able to bypass antibodies delivered via previous vaccines.

That would mean Americans could be urged to take a fourth shot, with fifth shots for the immunocompromised and people over 50 years old.

“The FDA is expected to follow the lead of its advisors and issue emergency use authorization to the new jabs at some point this week,” the Daily Mail reported. “After the FDA, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will also likely authorize the shots.”

The move comes as a new COVID wave is starting in New York City, and a top epidemiologist there says it’s from one of the stronger subvariants of Omicron.

The BA.5 subvariant, which first emerged in South Africa, is considered by some experts to be the “worst version” of Omicron that has been seen. The strain can bypass prior immunity, be transmitted more easily, and unlike like some other subvariants of Omicron, appears to target the lungs.

Dr. Jay Varma, a Weill Cornell epidemiologist who served as a top public health adviser to the New York City mayor during the pandemic, said “infections appear to have stabilized at a high level in the city, rather than dropping,” NBC New York reported.

Scientists have become increasingly worried about a couple new strains of SARS-CoV-2. The subvariants of the now-dominant Omicron variant — BA.4 and BA.5 — “seem to partially dodge antibodies from past infection or vaccination, making them more transmissible than other forms of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” the Daily Beast reported. “There are also some suggestions that the new subvariants have evolved to target the lungs — unlike Omicron, which usually resulted in a less dangerous infection of the upper respiratory tract.”

The Omicron variant has proven more contagious than earlier strains of the virus, but symptoms are most often far less severe. Scientists are hopeful the same holds true for the new subvariants, and so far in the United Kingdom, where the variants have been found, hospitalizations and deaths are down.

“This could mean higher transmissible variants, BA.4 or 5, are in play, [and] these variants are much less severe,” Edwin Michael, an epidemiologist at the Center for Global Health Infectious Disease Research at the University of South Florida, told the Beast.

Still, the new subvariants appear able to sneak past antibodies that have been built up either via vaccines or having been infected with COVID.

“The grandchildren of the basic Omicron variant that first appeared in the fall of 2021, BA.4 and BA.5 both feature a trio of major mutations to their spike protein, the part of the virus that helps it to grab onto and infect our cells,” the Beast reported. “Eric Bortz, a University of Alaska-Anchorage virologist and public-health expert, described BA.4 and BA.5 as ‘immunologically distinct sublineages.’ In other words, they interact with our antibodies in surprising new ways.”

Joseph Curl has covered politics for 35 years, including 12 years as White House correspondent for a national newspaper. He was also the a.m. editor of the Drudge Report for four years. Send tips to [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @josephcurl.

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