Updated at 5:55 PM ET
A Food and Drug Administration advisory board has unanimously voted on a proposal to streamline the nation’s strategy for vaccinating people against COVID-19.
The recommendation is that future COVID-19 vaccines should be interchangeable: It doesn’t matter if you’re getting your first dose or a booster, the vaccines would all have the same formulation targeting the same viral strain or strains, regardless of manufacturer. The vote was unanimous: 21-0.
Additionally, the committee considered (but didn’t vote on) proposals to have an annual COVID vaccination schedule, just as the US did for the flu. If that happens, most people would be advised to get just one shot each fall with a new vaccine that’s likely been reworked to try to match whatever variant is expected to roll out each winter. This would mean that Americans would no longer need to keep track of how many hits they’ve already landed or when.
The idea behind the revamp is to make vaccination less complicated and confusing. The ultimate goal would be to get more people vaccinated.
“Because of [the coronavirus’] evolving rapidly that we needed to adapt our approach over time and we are now in a reasonable position to reflect on the development of COVID-19 vaccines to date to see if we can streamline the approach to vaccination,” said Dr Peter Marks, the FDA’s top vaccine official, in remarks at the start of the all-day meeting.
He added that the goal is to “facilitate the process of optimal vaccination and protection of the entire population moving forward,”
Only 15 percent of people in the United States have received the latest bivalent COVID booster, which targets the original strain of the virus and BA.5 omicrons, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 40% of people aged 65 and over, who are at greatest risk for severe COVID, received the booster.
“We can’t keep doing what we’re doing. We have to keep going,” said Dr. Bruce Gellin, a temporary voting member on the panel who is the head of global public health strategy at the Rockefeller Foundation. “I think this is a reasonable approach.”
During the discussion the FDA brands acknowledge the “lackluster” results in the launch of the booster.
The committee agreed that it was time to update COVID vaccine delivery.
“As we move from a pandemic phase to an endemic one, today’s vote marks a major practical victory for the American people. This will truly benefit public health,” said Dr. Ofer Levy, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Harvard Medical School.
In a post-vote discussion, the committee discussed several ways to improve the vaccination strategy. The advisers expressed support for the proposal to hold public meetings to guide the selection of strains in vaccines. After the meetings, the agency would make a formal decision on variety selection and direct growers to increase production.
The agency has proposed a meeting in late May or early June this year to get the shots ready for the fall. The goal would be to match the vaccine to likely strains of the coronavirus that would circulate during the winter.
Some panelists said meetings may need to be held more frequently than once a year, such as with the flu vaccine, due to the pace of changes in SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 .
“This is not flu,” the FDA’s Marks acknowledged, adding however that there is useful precedent from how the flu vaccine is tailored. He said there would likely be at least one advisory committee meeting a year on selecting strains for a vaccine and related issues.
Under the FDA proposal, most people would only be offered one shot in the fall. Older people, young children, and people with compromised immune systems might be offered multiple shots spaced apart at times instead of a single shot.
“In principle, the committee has advocated moving forward with this,” said Dr. Stanley Perlman, the committee’s interim chair and a coronavirus researcher at the University of Iowa.
No vote was taken on either talking point.