COVID Shots Still Work, But Researchers Hunt New Improvements

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Moderna and Pfizer are currently testing combinations shots to see if they can be used as a booster for COVID-19 vaccines.

COVID-19 vaccinations are at a critical juncture as companies test whether new approaches like combination shots or nasal drops can keep up with a mutating coronavirus — even though it’s not clear if changes are needed.

Already there’s public confusion about who should get a second booster now and who can wait. It is also disputed whether everyone may need an additional dose in the fall.

“I’m very concerned about booster fatigue” causing a loss of confidence in vaccines that still offer very strong protection against COVID-19’s worst outcomes, said Dr. Beth Bell of the University of Washington, an adviser to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Despite success in preventing serious illness and death, there’s growing pressure to develop vaccines better at fending off milder infections, too — as well as options to counter scary variants.

“We go through a fire drill it seems like every quarter, every three months or so” when another mutant causes frantic tests to determine if the shots are holding, Pfizer vaccine chief Kathrin Jansen told a recent meeting of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Yet seeking improvements for the next round of vaccinations may seem like a luxury for U.S. families anxious to protect their littlest children — kids under 5 who are not yet eligible for a shot. Moderna’s Dr. Jacqueline Miller told The Associated Press that its application to give two low-dose shots to the youngest children would be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration “fairly soon.” Pfizer hasn’t yet reported data on a third dose of its extra-small shot for tots, after two didn’t prove strong enough.

Even after booster doses, the original COVID-19 vaccines are still highly protective against serious illness, hospitalization, and death.

It is risky to update the vaccine recipe to reflect the latest strains. The next mutation could also be entirely unrelated. The flu vaccine offers protection against three to four strains every year, so companies can take a page from it.

Moderna and Pfizer have begun testing 2-in-1 COVID-19 protection, which they plan to offer in the fall. Each “bivalent” shot would mix the original, proven vaccine with an omicron-targeted version.

Moderna suggests that the approach may work. It tested a combo shot that targeted the original version of the virus and an earlier variant named beta — and found vaccine recipients developed modest levels of antibodies capable of fighting not just beta but also newer mutants like omicron. Moderna is currently testing its bivalent candidate that targets omicron.

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