By Zachary Stieber
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is tracking toward recommending Americans get a COVID-19 vaccine once a year, the agency’s new director says.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, who recently replaced Dr. Rochelle Walensky, says that the new CDC recommendation is expected to be finalized and announced in September.
“We’re just on the precipice of that, so I don’t want to get ahead of where our scientists are here and doing that evaluation work, but yes we anticipate that COVID will become similar to flu shots, where it is going to be you get your annual flu shot and you get your annual COVID shot,” Dr. Cohen told Spectrum News.
“We’re not quite there yet, but stay tuned. I think within the next couple of weeks, month we’re going to hear more from our experts on COVID shots,” Dr. Cohen added.
The director, a strong proponent of the vaccines, did not offer any safety or efficacy data or any other details but said she worries “about parents not vaccinating kids” against COVID-19 and other viruses.
The CDC did not respond to emailed questions, including what it would say to critics who note that there’s a lack of clinical trial data supporting the shots.
Without that data, “you can’t really say what the potential benefit to people is,” Dr. David McCune, an oncologist, told The Epoch Times.
He noted that instead of efficacy data from trials, officials have been relying on antibody measurements, animal experiments, and observational studies to see whether the vaccines are effective. Observational data indicate the protection—against both infection and severe illness—wanes considerably within months, some papers have found that the more doses one receives, the more likely they are to be infected.
Scaling Back Recommendations
The CDC recommended people of all ages receive a primary series and that they all get at least one booster, too. The agency finally scaled back those recommendations in April, saying that some vaccinated people should not get an additional dose if they’ve already received one of the newer vaccines.
Other countries have also stopped recommending or even allowing some people to get boosters, including England.
The World Health Organization said in the spring that the highest priority is boosting people with compromised immune systems and others who could benefit the most, with the lower priority being on boosting healthy children.
The CDC should consider scaling back even further and not recommending young, healthy people receive a primary series if there continues to be a lack of data from trials and prospective studies, Dr. McCune said.
“When you look at tracking data for the young, the rates of either infection or vaccination—in other words, the rate at which people have some level of circulating immunity—is quite high. And so the idea that that group needs to have a vaccination series now, without current research in that particular population, I don’t think is scientifically valid,” he said.
The CDC’s recommendations often form the basis of mandates from colleges and other institutions.
As the vaccines have performed increasingly worse against newer variants of COVID-19, U.S. officials and manufacturers have worked together to update the shots to try to increase the performance.
In the fall of 2022, regulators authorized, and the CDC broadly recommended, new bivalent shots from Moderna and Pfizer despite there being no clinical trial data available. To this day, no efficacy data from trials have been made public for the newer shots, which completely replaced the old vaccines in early 2023.
Now the companies are preparing to update the shots again to target XBB.1.5, a newer variant of COVID-19, under guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). XBB.1.5 was the dominant strain in June, according to the CDC, but was projected to have been largely displaced in July.
Advisers to the FDA backed the upcoming change during a meeting in June. They said the vaccines aren’t performing well enough. The same advisers said in January they favored annual vaccines produced in a system similar to that for the influenza vaccines.
The updated shots are expected to be rolled out in September. For the first time, they will not contain any components of the Wuhan variant, the original strain.
Separately, the Biden administration is spending $5 billion on what it calls Project NextGen, an effort that includes trying to support the development of better vaccines.
“Immunity from both vaccines and infection wanes over time. The only way to stay ahead of the virus is to continue to update the composition of our vaccines and administer them in a regular cadence. Although this strategy is critical, with our current generation of vaccines, it also requires immense resources for mounting frequent vaccination campaigns—at a time when antivaccination sentiment continues to grow and the public’s appetite for regular vaccinations has waned,” Health Secretary Xavier Becerra and former White House official Dr. Ashish Jha wrote in an editorial.
They added: “Next-generation vaccines and treatments are needed if we are to break the cycle of responding to new variants as they appear: we need tools that can improve our bodies’ ability to stop infections, reduce transmission, build longer-lasting immunity, and target parts of the virus that are less likely to evolve. Ideally, such vaccines and treatments would provide better protection, enabling us to avoid disruptions of our lives and continue to enjoy the activities we value.”
Major pharmaceutical companies are preparing combination COVID-19-influenza vaccines and have said they expect tens of millions of Americans to get the shots on an annual basis. The FDA gave Pfizer and BioNTech permission in 2022 to track a candidate that utilizes messenger RNA technology, like their vaccine, the companies said. Moderna is also working on a combination shot.
The revenue from the combination shot could help offset the sharp drop in demand for the current slate of COVID-19 vaccines, which are being adopted by a fraction of Americans.
“The companies need a new market for the COVID product and they can get that by combining it with the influenza vaccine and making sure the CDC recommends that everyone get a COVID booster annually,” Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center, told The Epoch Times in an email.
Surveys show many Americans do not trust the CDC, with concerns including the agency giving “too many conflicting recommendations.”
“If CDC officials recommend that everyone get an annual COVID booster shot,” Ms. Fisher said, “it will only further increase public distrust in vaccines and call into question the scientific and moral integrity of public health policy.”