The F.D.A. authorized coronavirus vaccines targeting the recent subvariants.
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Welcome to the Virus Briefing, your comprehensive guide to the latest news and expert analysis on the coronavirus pandemic and other outbreaks.
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For the first time, we have an updated coronavirus vaccine.
The Food and Drug Administration today authorized the first redesign of Covid vaccines since they were rolled out in late 2020. If all goes as expected, millions of Americans will be able to receive new booster doses targeting Omicron subvariants as early as next week.
The agency cleared two options: one made by Pfizer for use in people as young as 12, and the other by Moderna, for those 18 and older. The doses can be given to those who have completed their initial shots, whether or not they have also received boosters, as long as their last shot was at least two months ago.
The booster campaign comes as the U.S. is preparing for its third pandemic winter, and as it averages about 90,000 infections and 475 deaths every day. For more on the shots and the rollout, I turned to my colleague Sharon LaFraniere, an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau who has been covering the government’s response to the pandemic.
How do the boosters work?
The new shots are called bivalent, because one half is the original shot and one half is a reformulation designed specifically for BA.4 and BA.5, which are the subvariants of Omicron that together account for most cases in the U.S. The theory is that this combination will be more effective than the original formulation.
How well do they work?
Human trials are just getting going, but evidence from trials in mice indicates that this shot may be more protective against the Omicron subvariants than the original shot.
Why are we relying on trials in mice?
We’re in a time crunch. The virus is evolving too fast for scientists to do human trials because by the time they get results, we could have a new variant. There will be some data from human trials later this year, maybe in November or sooner, but the government wants to get going right now because most Americans have not had a Covid vaccine shot this year, and we know that the protection that the vaccines induce wanes over time.
The F.D.A. is emphasizing that they are not relying simply on the data from the trials in mice. They’re looking at the totality of the evidence, which includes the results of earlier clinical trials. Before Moderna and Pfizer started testing a bivalent that targeted these subvariants, they made bivalents against Beta and Delta and the original Omicron variant and tested them in humans.
The F.D.A.’s critics say that’s just not good enough, that we need more evidence that this particular bivalent will work before rolling it out nationwide. The F.D.A.’s commissioner said today that the proof will be in the pudding. In other words, they’ll have to carefully follow what happens.
Are the new shots safe?
There really isn’t any question that the shots are safe. They’ve been given to hundreds of millions of people. And according to federal officials, this kind of redesign is what we do for the flu vaccine every year. You’re not getting the same flu shot every fall. It’s been rejiggered, without conducting human clinical trials, to meet whatever variant is expected to circulate.
When can I get a shot?
Today the F.D.A. issued emergency use authorization for the new boosters. So now, the federal government can start shipping doses to the states. But the states can’t start administering them until the C.D.C. director signs off. The C.D.C.’s advisory panel is meeting tomorrow and Friday and will make recommendations. If Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director, signs off on Friday, then doses will be available, if not this weekend, then soon thereafter.
What does the future of the government’s response look like?
This is likely to be the last free vaccine shot that Americans get. Future shots will probably have to be covered by insurance plans. The big question is what the uptake will be for the new boosters. Some state officials are saying that they’ve stopped aggressively pushing coronavirus shots. With each additional shot that has been offered, there have been fewer and fewer takers.
More on the boosters:
The Times’s Well desk answered questions about the new shots, including how long you should wait after your last shot or an infection to sign up.
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The average life expectancy of Americans fell precipitously in 2020 and 2021, a stark reminder of the toll exacted on the nation by the coronavirus pandemic. It was the sharpest two-year decline in nearly 100 years.
In 2021, the average American could expect to live until the age of 76, federal health researchers reported today. The figure represents a loss of almost three years since 2019, when Americans could expect to live, on average, nearly 79 years. The decline has hit Native American and Alaska Native communities particularly hard.
Read more here.
The Times spoke to seven people who have recovered from the disease. They shared their stories of devastating symptoms, their frustration over finding care and their efforts to help one another when doctors and officials failed to assist.
The California Legislature approved a bill that would allow regulators to punish doctors for spreading false information about Covid vaccinations and treatments.
C.D.C. data shows that the new Omicron subvariant BA.4.6 is rising and that it may be able to outcompete BA.5 in the U.S., Deadline reports.
Covid restrictions in China and North Korea have battered the city of Shenyang, in China’s northeast.
The Biden administration announced a new plan to get more doses of monkeypox vaccine to people of color and others who have lacked access.
The World Health Organization said that a slowdown in cases was raising hopes that the outbreak could be eliminated in Europe, The Washington Post reports.
Texas reported the death of a person with monkeypox in what appears to be the first fatal case in the U.S., Stat News reports.
Illinois reported its first death from West Nile this year, The Chicago Tribune reports.
We asked our readers how they felt about the new Covid boosters. Nearly 9,000 of you wrote in, and most of you were enthusiastic about getting an updated shot. A big thank you to all the people who took the time to share their views.
“I’m excited for them. I haven’t had Covid yet and don’t intend to get it. Vaccines are part of the way we keep ourselves and our communities safe. I know 12 people who died from Covid before the vaccine, and none who’ve died since. I will not be part of the problem. I will not be part of prolonging the pandemic.” — Lee Ryan, Albany, N.Y.
“Right now, there is no convincing data that the Omicron specific vaccines are any better than the original formula. I’ve already had three shots, and the data shows I’m extremely well protected against severe Covid. I don’t see the point.” — Alec Anders, Gaithersburg, Md.
“I quite literally cannot wait for my fresh booster. I’m almost as jazzed for an Omicron-targeted booster as I am for the new Taylor Swift album. That sounds dramatic but it’s true. Everyone I know has gotten sick with Omicron and it’s this constant worry in the back of our heads. We’ve waited a LONG time for new vaccines and I’m excited that the option is finally here. It feels like a really important milestone for (actually, finally) moving on from the pandemic.” — Allie, New York City
“Glad they’re targeting the new strains. But, for those of us who already had a few shots and reacted strongly to each one, I’m not sure if the side effects will be worse than the virus given how it’s weakening. If a fourth shot makes me ill for several days again, it will definitely be worse than when I had Covid last spring.” — Trina, Tennessee
“My grandmother (born 1898) was one out of 10 children. Only she and her brother survived diseases for which we now have vaccines. Is this what we should return to? I’m a registered nurse in long-term care who watched many die during the spring of 2020. Booster? Absolutely!” — Vicky Fleming, Great Barrington, Mass.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back Wednesday — Jonathan
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