Coronavirus Update: FDA panel backs plan for annual COVID-19 booster shot


A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel voted unanimously Thursday for Americans to get a once-a-year booster against COVID-19, with the strain to be decided midyear for a fall campaign, the Associated Press reported. 

“This is a consequential meeting to determine if we’ve reached the point in the pandemic that allows for simplifying the use of current COVID-19 vaccines,” said the FDA’s Dr. David Kaslow.

The panel agreed that people should get the same vaccine formula whether they’re receiving their initial vaccinations or a booster. Today, Americans get one formula based on the original coronavirus strain that emerged in 2020 for their first two or three doses, and their latest booster is a combination shot made by Pfizer PFE, -0.38% or Moderna MRNA, -1.26% that adds protection against omicron.

The FDA would have to decide how to phase in that change.

COVID-19 vaccines have saved millions of lives, and booster doses remain the best protection against severe disease and death. But Americans are tired of getting vaccinated. While more than 80% of the U.S. population has had at least one COVID-19 shot, only 16% of those eligible for the latest boosters — so-called bivalent doses updated to better match more recent virus strains — have gotten one.

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Separately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered an update Friday on the strains that are dominant in the U.S., showing that XBB.1.5, the omicron sublineage that first emerged in small numbers in October, has extended its lead over other variants.

XBB.1.5 accounted for 61.3% of cases in the week through Jan. 28, the data shows, up from 49.1% a week ago. The prior dominant variants, BQ.1.1 and BQ.1, together accounted for 31.1% of new cases.

In the CDC’s Region 2, which includes New York, New Jersey, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, XBB.1.5 accounted for 91.1% of new cases, up from 86.8% the previous week.

The World Health Organization said this week that it now has data on XBB.1.5 from 54 countries, showing it has a growth advantage over other circulating strains but still appears no more severe.

In its weekly epidemiological update, the agency said it has raised the confidence level of its risk assessment for XBB.1.5 to “moderate” from “low,” using these additional reports. The highest number of XBB.1.5 cases are showing up in the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Denmark, Germany, Ireland and Austria.

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The news comes as the seven-day average of new cases stood at 46,300 on Thursday, according to a New York Times tracker. That’s down 24% from two weeks ago. The daily average for hospitalizations was down 24%, at 34,833. The average number of deaths was 549, down 3% from two weeks ago. 

Cases are currently climbing in eight states — Illinois, Tennessee, Minnesota, Alaska, South Dakota, Vermont, Kentucky and Kansas — as well as in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C.

Coronavirus update: MarketWatch’s daily roundup has been curating and reporting all the latest developments every weekday since the coronavirus pandemic began

Other COVID-19 news you should know about:

• China’s claim that COVID cases and deaths have peaked and are falling fast is failing to take on board that testing is not keeping up with infections, the Guardian reported. China ended its zero-COVID policy in December and promptly saw a wave of cases spread across the nation. Its health authorities said this week that the worst is behind it, but experts are wary that it is underreporting numbers, as it has since the start of the pandemic. Now the pullback in testing is a factor, according to the Guardian. Daily tests had dropped to 280,000 by Monday, down from 150 million on Dec. 9, and 7.54 million on Jan. 1. Some provinces had enacted systems for collecting the results of residents or allowing residents to self-report, but the figures were “affected by the willingness of residents to test.”

What’s seen as the world’s largest annual human migration is under way again in China for the Lunar New Year, after the country lifted pandemic restrictions. WSJ’s Yoko Kubota reports on how it’s expected to boost the economy–and the risk of new Covid-19 outbreaks. Photo: Cfoto/Zuma Press

• South Korea says it will continue to restrict the entry of short-term travelers from China through the end of February over concerns that the spread of COVID may worsen following the Lunar New Year holidays, the AP reported. South Korea in early January stopped issuing most short-term visas at its consulates in China, citing concerns about the virus surge in the country.

• Spain is set to end the mandatory use of face masks on public transport nearly three years after the start of the pandemic, the AP reported separately. Spanish Health Minister Carolina Darias said Thursday she would recommend that the government remove the health regulation when the cabinet meets on Feb. 7. Face masks will remain obligatory inside hospitals, health clinics, dentist offices and pharmacies.

Here’s what the numbers say:

The global tally of confirmed COVID-19 cases topped 669.9 million Wednesday, while the death toll rose above 6.82 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. leads the world with 102.3 million cases and 1,107,559 fatalities.

The CDC’s tracker shows that 229.6 million people living in the U.S., equal to 69.2% of the total population, are fully vaccinated, meaning they have had their primary shots.

So far, just 51.4 million Americans, equal to 15.5% of the overall population, have had the updated COVID booster that targets both the original virus and the omicron variants.

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