At a press briefing Tuesday, the White House revealed its new pandemic strategy, one that will be based on using the new bivalent COVID vaccines as an annual booster for the general population and more frequently for those considered high-risk. The original monovalent vaccine will still be used for the primary series (i.e. first time vaccinations).
The coordinator of the White House’s COVID-19 Response Team, Dr. Ashish Jha, called the roll-out of the bivalent vaccines a “major milestone” and stressed his pride that the United States was the “first nation with new vaccines that match the version of the Omicron variant that is currently dominant,” and that, “for the first time since December 2020, these vaccines . . . have caught up with the virus.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci then spoke, focusing on how the new annual COVID vaccine program would be similar to the already existing annual influenza vaccine program. (This provided the grounds for Dr. Jha’s infamous statement on the two vaccines: “I really believe this is why God gave us two arms — one for the flu shot and the other one for the COVID shot.”)
Yahoo’s reporter asked how this would be achieved, given that unlike with influenza, scientists would not have the advantage of seeing what kind of variant predominates before crafting the US vaccine for the coming season because of the SARS-CoV-2 more rapid mutation cycle. Fauci replied that in the long-run, the idea was to develop a “pan-coronavirus type of vaccine” and that in the short-term, “we can look at it on a yearly basis and see, are we still close to what we’re doing now where we match pretty closely? If so, good. If not, then you’d want to make the modification.” He did not explain how that would be done, or what could be done about “any new variant curveballs” that could appear (in the words of Dr. Jha).
On safety, Fauci described the hundreds of millions of doses that have already been administered in the U.S. and the “robust safety monitoring systems” which have revealed “an extensive body of safety data as good or better than what we have for any prior vaccine.” It is unclear what body of safety data he was referring to, given that the CDC’s own VAERS reporting system shows that COVID vaccines are hundreds of times more likely to prompt adverse event reports, including death (see here below) than other vaccines.
He added that, “In clinical trials, more than 1,700 people have received bivalent mRNA vaccines with no additional safety concerns” (emphasis added).
On efficacy, Fauci stated that Moderna’s and Pfizer’s data show that, “vaccines containing sequences from both the original SARS-CoV-1 virus and the Omicron BA.1 variant induced higher antibody titers against Omicron than did the original vaccines . . . and so we fully expect that the updated bivalent vaccines containing BA.4 and BA.5 sequences will offer better protection against currently circulating strains than the original vaccines, although it is difficult to predict at this point how much better that protection will be.”
In other words, Fauci admitted that the bivalent vaccines have been approved based almost entirely on antibody titers, similar to the way in which child COVID vaccines were approved based on immuno-bridging, a scientifically dubious practice which is founded on the assumption that antibody counts are correlated with immune protection – an assumption that has been disproved in at least one major scientific study, as Frontline News documented here. Indeed, Fauci did not produce any data to back up his assertions.
Nonetheless, the US authorities are now advocating for a universal booster program, with anyone over the age of 12 who is at least two months from a prior vaccine or infection urged to go and get that shot.
According to Dr. Rochelle Walensky of the CDC, “data have repeatedly demonstrated that being up-to-date on your COVID-19 vaccination provides protection against severe illness and death from COVID-19.” She referred to “modeling projections” that show that if COVID booster uptake is similar to annual influenza coverage, “as many as 100,000 hospitalizations, 9,000 deaths, and . . . billions of dollars” could be saved.
She also noted that COVID deaths were “far too high for a vaccine-preventable disease,” which contradicted what Dr. Jha took pains to stress when he said, “We are clearly in a far better place today than where we were when President Biden took office 19 months ago or over – or even nine months ago. We are at a point where in most instances we can prevent serious illness and death, we can keep businesses and schools open and running, and we can get people back to a more normal set of routines.”
And although both Walensky and Fauci stressed the benefit of the vaccines in preventing serious illness and death, Jha resurrected the argument used in the early days of the vaccine roll-out, way back in early 2021 when the authorities were still claiming that the shots could prevent transmission, saying:
“So, today, we’re calling on all Americans: Roll up your sleeve to get your COVID-19 vaccine shot. If you don’t think you need it because you are healthy, do it for your grandmother, do it for your vulnerable uncle or for your friend.”
There was little in the way of serious challenge to the claims being made with regard to the bivalent vaccines, possibly because both Walensky and Fauci were careful not to make any rash promises. One reporter present did, however, question why, if the bivalent vaccine is so successful, the primary series (i.e. the shots based solely on the Wuhan strain) are not being updated in favor of the Wuhan-Omicron vaccine?
Answering the CBS reporter’s question, Dr. Fauci claimed that the Wuhan vaccines “created a very broad degree of coverage that did very well against many of the variants . . . from the . . . Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and even Omicron. So we don’t want to deprive the population of getting that broad coverage at the same time as we give them the added benefit of a variant-specific that’s circulating.”
No one present asked just how significant that added benefit might be, but a recent study (still in pre-print) did set out to answer that question.
The researchers found that the benefit was likely to be, on average, around 0.8 percentage points in relation to serious illness. That is to say, that for each 1,000 severe cases of COVID, 8 severe cases would be averted. This was the case in a population assumed to have 50 percent immunity to COVID due to either vaccination or infection. It is unclear why the researchers decided on this figure, given that the true figure is almost certainly much higher, which would give a much smaller benefit for the bivalent vaccine over the Wuhan-based shots.
Whether the huge investment (in both public and private funds) in producing this bivalent vaccine is justified, given the apparently meager and uncertain returns, is a matter of debate.