The US is tracking several omicron subvariants of the coronavirus that evade immunity more easily, but the new booster shots should protect against them, a senior health official said Tuesday.
Health officials are keeping a close eye on subvariants because they render many treatments ineffective, Dr. Ashish Jha, head of the White House Covid task force.
But the new booster shots available in the US should offer a much higher level of protection against the variants since they are all derived from either omicron BA.2 or omicron BA.5, Jha told reporters at the White House.
The US introduced updated boosters in September targeting the omicron BA.5 variant. Pfizer’s new shots are available for ages 12+, while adults 18+ are eligible for Moderna’s boosters.
Omicron BA.5 causes about 80% of new infections in the US, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But other sub-variants like BA.2.75, BA.4.6 and BF.7 are making little progress according to the data.
Jha said health officials expect infections to increase from November to January. He added that as the virus continues to evolve, it is difficult to predict whether there will be a larger surge.
People should get their new booster by Halloween so they have protection when families gather for Thanksgiving, he said. But people recently infected with Covid can wait three months to get the new shots because infection also boosts immunity, he added.
More than 11 million people have received the new boosters so far, according to CDC data. Jha said he expects more people to get the shots this month ahead of the holiday season.
US health officials are most concerned about the elderly. Jha told reporters last week that 70% of people dying from Covid are aged 75 and over. He said most older people who die are either not up to date on their vaccines or are not receiving treatment after having a breakthrough infection.
According to CDC data, more than 300 people are still dying a day from Covid on average. Jha said last week the deaths were unacceptable given the widespread availability of vaccines and treatments.
“If you are up to date with your vaccines and treated if you have a breakthrough infection, your risk of dying from Covid is now close to zero,” Jha said on Tuesday.
Jha also criticized Congress for failing to accept the White House’s request for $22 billion in Covid funding. The Biden administration had to reallocate funds to find funds to stockpile the new booster shots.
As a result, the US does not have an adequate national stockpile of personal protective equipment or Covid testing, Jha said.
The US has no money to invest in developing the next generation of vaccines and treatments, Jha said. He added that the current booster campaign is more limited due to a lack of funding.
“No doubt our response has been hampered by this lack of funding,” Jha said.