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When will an omicron-specific COVID vaccine be available?

Vaccine manufacturers are racing to develop the next wave of COVID-19 boosters as health officials prepare for an omicron-charged surge to hit the U.S. this fall.

While the existing vaccines continue to offer protection against severe illness and death from COVID-19, health officials hope a booster aimed at more recent strains of coronavirus — specifically omicron’s subvariants BA. 4 and BA.5 — will offer enhanced protection as early as this fall.

On Friday, July 29, the White House announced a deal to secure 66 million doses of an enhanced COVID vaccine booster candidate from Moderna, which aims to offer better protection against newer strains of coronavirus.

The government also has a deal to buy 105 million doses of a bivalent booster from Pfizer, with both deals requiring FDA authorization and CDC recommendation.

Those bivalent boosters, which address two viral strains in one shot, are expected to be available early this fall. The FDA initially expressed optimism for an October rollout, but The Washington Post reported Thursday that the Biden administration now expects to have shots available in September.

Regardless, infectious disease specialists say an improved version of the vaccine was always the next step in garnering protection against an ever-evolving virus. That’s because the original vaccine was made to target the original strain, which has since gone through numerous mutations.

“The vaccines we have are first generation; they’ve done a phenomenal job,” said Dr. Liam Sullivan, an infectious disease specialist at Spectrum Health. “I don’t even want to imagine what this would be like without the vaccines. It would have been awful. They’ve kept people out of the hospital; they’ve kept people from dying; they’ve been wildly successful, but they can be improved upon too.”

Related: BA.5 variant could speed up Michigan’s fall COVID surge

The latest rise in COVID cases around the world has been linked to the newest omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5. The latter makes up about 82% of U.S. cases, and about 70% of sequences cases in Michigan.

BA.5 spreads easier than previous strains of coronavirus. Health officials say it’s better at evading prior immunity as well, opening the door for infection among individuals who have already gotten COVID-19 as recently as this year.

“Omicron, unlike some of the other variants, has shown this innate ability to escape neutralizing antibodies,” Sullivan said. “But the good news is, those people are not getting severely infected. They’re getting mild sickness.”

Moderna says its bivalent booster candidate, which is designed against both the original strain and more recent omicron variant, has been effective in clinical trials. The company said in late June it planned to submit its data to regulators and prepare supply in case it got approval by August.

Meanwhile, Pfizer has developed two new booster candidates — a bivalent shot and one that only targets omicron (monovalent). The company says both shots elicit increased response against omicron BA.1, and to a lesser extent BA.4 and BA.5.

On Wednesday, Pfizer, along with partner BioNTech, began testing its bivalent booster on 200 clinical participants between the ages of 18 and 55.

Whenever the shots are available to the public, it’s possible there will be a new variant that has taken hold by then. But Dr. Matthew Sims, director of infectious disease research at Beaumont Health, noted that a second generation vaccine is likely to also offer better protection against the next strain since it’ll likely have many of the same mutations as omicron, plus more.

“Like the vaccine we have now, by the time it was deployed the country had already shifted to alpha, but it was still just as effective because alpha was fairly close to the original,” Sims said.

Michigan health officials have said the rapid spread of BA.5 could bring the fall surge weeks earlier than originally projected. They’ve long called for another wave of cases as students return to school and social gatherings move back indoors with the dropping of temperatures.

The state recently saw its seven-day average for daily new COVID cases (2,369) reach its highest point since late May. Hospitalizations and deaths remain steady, but health officials are watching closely as they continue to urge vaccination for those due for a shot.

As of Wednesday, almost 63% of Michigan residents had gotten at least a first dose of COVID vaccine, while only 35.2% had received a booster shot beyond their initial dosage.

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