White House outlines strategy to combat BA.5: 3 COVID-19 updates

Officials in President Joe Biden's administration are considering plans to make second COVID-19 boosters available to all adults as part of the White House's larger strategy to combat a rise in cases and hospitalizations driven by the BA.5 omicron subvariant.

Second boosters would become available to all adults pending sign-off from the FDA and CDC, according to several administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, The Washington Post reported July 11. Second boosters are currently available only to people aged 50 and older and those 12 and older who are immunocompromised. 

"I know that the FDA is considering this and looking at it ... and I know CDC scientists are thinking about this and looking at the data as well," Ashish Jha, MD, White House COVID-19 response coordinator, said during a July 12 media briefing. 

In the mean time, health officials urged people to get their initial booster dose, available to those aged 5 and older, if they have not done so yet. 

"If you haven't, don't delay. Do it now," Dr. Jha said, adding that getting a booster now will not prevent people from getting an omicron-specific vaccine in the fall or winter, when they're expected to become available. 

Dr. Jha urged those 50 and older to stay up to date with vaccines and get their second booster. "If you have not gotten a vaccine shot in the year 2022 ... please go get another vaccine shot ... it could save your life," he said. CDC director Rochelle Walensky, MD, referenced data underlining the value of a second booster among those 50 and older. 

"Those vaccinated with a primary series and only one booster dose ... had four times the risk of dying from COVID-19 compared to those who had a primary series and two or more booster doses," Dr. Walensky said. CDC data shows just 28 percent of people 50 and older have gotten their second booster. 

COVID-19 hospitalizations in the U.S. have risen 18 percent over the past two weeks, with a daily average of 37,766 people hospitalized as of July 11. This marks the highest national average for hospitalizations since March and comes as the highly transmissible BA.5 variant accounts for 65 percent of cases, according to the CDC's latest variant proportion update

"The key feature of BA.5, that we know about, is its immune evasiveness — you can be fully vaccinated and boosted and still have a risk of breakthrough infection," Dr. Jha told The New York Times July 11. "You can be previously infected — even as recent as the last couple of months — and have a very high rate of reinfection." CDC data shows just 28 percent of people 50 and older have gotten their second booster. 

Two more updates: 

1. The White House released a fact sheet on its strategy to manage BA.5 July 12. Aside from pending plans to expand eligibility for second boosters — which was not explicitly mentioned in the fact sheet — the strategy is similar to plans to combat earlier strains. The White House said it plans to work with stakeholders to drive additional booster and vaccine uptake; increase access and awareness of treatments like Paxlovid; and make free tests and masks widely available.

2. Experts are keeping a close eye on BA.2.75, the latest omicron relative gaining traction in India. In the U.S., three cases have recently been identified on the West Coast. Experts have expressed concern the subvariant could be even more transmissible than BA.5, since it appears to have a large number of mutations that could make it even more adept at evading immune protection. It's still too early to draw hard conclusions about the strain, experts say, adding that information will become clearer over the coming weeks. 


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