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A controversial proposal would update COVID vaccines each year for dominant strain

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today, advisers to the Food and Drug Administration overwhelmingly endorsed a proposal to make big changes in the nation's strategy for vaccinating people against COVID-19. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein is here. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there.

KELLY: OK. So big changes - what is the new strategy?

STEIN: The idea is to make vaccination against COVID much simpler and less confusing and much more like the annual flu shots. You know, right now, getting vaccinated against COVID means getting two shots of the original vaccine spaced out weeks apart and then one of the new bivalent omicron boosters at least two months later. Under the new game plan, most people would just get one shot every fall with a new vaccine that's probably been rejiggered to try to match whatever variant is most likely to be spreading that winter. No need to keep track of how many shots have they already gotten or when, just like the flu shots.

And, you know, Mary Louise, this is based on two things. The first is that COVID's going to keep making lots of people sick for years to come. And so an effective vaccination strategy is crucial to protect people. The second is that most people have so much immunity at this point from having gotten vaccinated and boosted and infected that one shot once a year should be enough moving forward. Here's how Dr. Peter Marks from the FDA put it at the start of a daylong meeting of the agency's outside advisers today.

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PETER MARKS: We're now in a reasonable place to reflect on the development of the COVID-19 vaccines to date to see if we can simplify the approach to vaccination in order to facilitate the process of optimally vaccinating and protecting the entire population moving forward.

STEIN: And hopefully entice more people to get vaccinated. You know, only about 15% of eligible people have gotten one of the new boosters, which is a big reason why hundreds of people are still dying from COVID every day.

KELLY: Well, and simpler, less confusing - that all sounds good. Tell me more about what exactly happened today.

STEIN: The FDA advisers reviewed the latest data about how well the current vaccines work, how safe they are and how updating vaccines to target omicron has worked out. Scientists from the FDA and the CDC and the vaccine companies presented data that the vaccines are safe and are doing a good job of preventing people from getting really sick and that reformulating the vaccines to target omicron provided added protection. And in the end, the advisers voted unanimously to simplify the vaccines. Here's Dr. Ofer Levy from the Harvard Medical School.

OFER LEVY: As we've turned the corner from a pandemic phase to an endemic phase, today's vote marks a big practical win for the American people. This is going to really simplify things, benefit public health.

STEIN: But, you know, there are still lots of questions about this, about whether continuously updating the vaccines makes sense given how fast the virus is still evolving, about how the vaccines should be updated exactly, about how best to evaluate the shots and about how often people really need more shots and who really needs them. Here's Dr. Cody Meissner from the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

CODY MEISSNER: We may or may not need annual vaccination. It's just awfully early, it seems to me, in this process to answer that question.

STEIN: And many scientists say we need to focus instead on developing next-generation vaccinations that work better and on getting more people vaccinated.

KELLY: Briefly, Rob, next steps?

STEIN: The FDA advisers will meet again in the spring to help pick which strain or strains of the vaccine should target the vaccines next fall.

KELLY: All right. Well, we will leave it there for now. That is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you.

STEIN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.