BA.2, boosters and billions in funding: The latest notes to start the week

Public health experts and officials took to the Sunday shows March 20 to talk boosters, the BA.2 omicron subvariant and COVID-19 relief aid funding. Here are the latest developments for each issue paired with their analyses. 

BA.2

The latest

  • The CDC released estimates March 15 that the BA.2 subvariant of omicron was estimated to be 23.1 percent of the coronavirus variants circulating in the United States as of March 12. 
  • Data suggests no significant difference in disease severity between the original omicron strain and BA.2, according to the World Health Organization.
  • U.S. health officials have been monitoring the United Kingdom, where COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are simultaneously climbing due to the BA.2 subvariant, which has outnumbered the original omicron strain. 

What experts make of it: Health officials expect COVID-19 infections to tick upward in coming weeks, but their guidance underscored caution rather than alarm. Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he expects a bump in cases but not necessarily a surge. 

"The bottom line is we likely will see an uptick in cases as we've seen in the European countries, particularly the U.K., where they've had the same situation as we've had now. They have BA.2. They have a relaxation of some restrictions such as indoor masking, and there's a waning of immunity. Hopefully, we won't see a surge. I don't think we will," Dr. Fauci told ABC News. "The easiest way to prevent that is to continue to get people vaccinated. And for those who have been vaccinated, to continue to get them boosted."

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, noted the need for preparation ahead of a possible BA.2 uptick. 

"There may be rises and falls in cases in the months ahead," Dr. Murthy told Fox News. "But here's the key, our goal is to keep people out of the hospital, it's to save their lives, and we have more tools to do that than ever before. So our focus should be on preparation, not on panic. And if we get people these tools, vaccines, boosters, treatments, then we can actually get through waves that may come and go."

Scott Gottlieb, MD, former FDA commissioner and current Pfizer board member, said the potential of case increases due to BA.2 does not alter his projection for a relatively stable summer.

"I think we're going to continue to see low levels of infection through the summer. But before we get there, we're probably going to see some tick-up of infection like the Europeans are seeing right now, maybe not as pronounced," Dr. Gottlieb told CBS News.

 

Boosters

The latest

  • Second booster shots went from a questioned possibility to a more likely reality last week as drugmakers filed for the FDA's green light for the additional dose. 
  • Pfizer and BioNTech submitted an application to the FDA seeking emergency authorization for a second booster shot of their COVID-19 vaccine for people 65 and older. 
  • Moderna followed suit days later, seeking emergency use authorization of a second booster shot of its COVID-19 vaccine for all adults.
  • The CDC currently recommends people ages 12 years and older who are moderately or severely immunocompromised receive a total of four doses of COVID-19 vaccine. 

What experts make of it: Fully vaccinated individuals who have received a booster dose are expected to fare well for the time being, according to Dr. Gottlieb. 

"If we're in a low-prevalent environment, as we're likely to be this summer, I think most Americans who had three doses of vaccine will have sufficient protection going through the summer," Dr. Gottlieb told CBS News. "I think the risk is going to be pretty low this summer. I think after we have this bump in infection, we're gonna get down to low levels. Heading into the fall, I suspect a lot of Americans will want to get another vaccine." 

Dr. Fauci noted that the United States still has a ways to go in its rate of booster shot administration. He agreed with Anne Rimoin, PhD, professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, who told The New York Times: "There are so many things we could be doing, yet the United States has time and time again chosen to be reactive, rather than proactive, and that has cost us dearly. We've been wearing rose-colored glasses instead of correcting our vision."

"I think she makes a very, very good point," Dr. Fauci told ABC News. "I mean we only still have about 65 percent of our population has been vaccinated and -- of the total population. And of those who are eligible for a booster, only about 50 percent of them have been boosted. There are a lot of things that we can do from a public health standpoint."

Latest counts from the CDC show 44.5 percent of fully vaccinated Americans have received a booster dose as of March 20, with Vermont leading the nation at 59 percent and North Carolina trailing at 26 percent.

 

COVID-19 relief aid funding

The latest

  • President Joe Biden signed into law March 15 a sweeping $1.5 trillion bill that funds the government through September. The legislation didn't include COVID-19 funding the White House had asked Congress for due to partisan disagreement about offsetting the funding.
  • The White House is pressing Congress for more aid, but there isn't a clear path to approval of more COVID-19 funding. 
  • The Biden administration is requesting that Congress provide authority to ensure access to Medicare and insurance coverage for treatments under an Emergency Use Authorization.

What experts make of it: "The thing that concerns me right now is that as much work as we've done in the last two years to get the right tools, we've got to continue funding them and supporting them so they are available to people across the country. That's why Congress moving to provide that funding is so critical," Dr. Murthy told Fox News. 

The White House said last week that Congress' impasse over funding leaves the government without sufficient funds to purchase enough booster doses and variant-specific vaccines, and will hinder the government's ability to identify and assess COVID-19 variants.

Dr. Fauci said the strength of preventive and preparation measures the United States can take for BA.2 and other variants ⁠— testing, boosters and antiviral treatments, specifically ⁠— is tied to federal funding. He is concerned that the U.S. will be caught unprepared without more funds.

"We just can't stand still, particularly as we appear to be in somewhat of a lull in the cases, where cases continue to come down, deaths continue to come down and hospitalizations," Dr. Fauci told ABC News. "That's no time at all to declare victory because this virus has fooled us before and we really must be prepared for the possibility that we might get another variant and we don't want to be caught flatfooted on that."

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