Health and Wellness

BA.5 boosters could be here in the next 3 weeks, says Dr. Jha: 'These are substantial upgrades in our vaccines'

Dr. Ashish Jha, Coordinator of the COVID-19 Response, speaks to reporters during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., April 26, 2022. 
Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

Dr. Ashish Jha has an updated prediction for when Covid booster shots targeting the omicron's BA.5 subvariant could be available: within the next three weeks or so.

"We're going to know more about this in the upcoming weeks and these vaccines will become available by early to mid-September," Jha, the White House's Covid response coordinator, said at a virtual event hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation on Tuesday.

Jha's timeline is the most specific estimate to date, following comments in prior months from health officials signaling a potential rollout in September or October. He noted that while the booster shots are expected to sail relatively smoothly through vetting from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, any authorization hiccups could delay that release date.

The booster shots being considered by the FDA and CDC are made by both Moderna and Pfizer, and are known as "bivalent" shots — which means they target two separate strains of the coronavirus. In this case, the shots target both the original Covid strain and omicron's BA.5 subvariant, which currently represents 85% to 90% of all U.S. cases, according to Jha.

Jha emphasized that BA.5 is "incredibly immune evasive" and contagious, fueling breakthrough cases among vaccinated individuals and reinfections in those who had the virus just months prior. The subvariant could wreak more havoc in the fall as vaccine immunity wanes and people spend more time indoors, making updated shots a potentially valuable tool for nationwide protection.

"The big picture, bottom line, is these are substantial upgrades in our vaccines, in terms of their ability to prevent infection, prevent transmission and certainly to prevent serious illness," Jha said. "And those vaccines are coming very, very soon."

A CDC spokesperson tells CNBC Make It that the updated shots will be available as a booster dose for people who have completed their primary vaccination series, regardless of how many other boosters they have or haven't received. The agency says it expects Pfizer's updated booster to be authorized for people ages 12 and older, and Moderna's updated shot to be for people ages 18 and older.

Younger pediatric age groups will follow later, the spokesperson says.

On Monday, the United Kingdom authorized an updated shot from Moderna, becoming the world's first country to authorize a bivalent Covid booster. The U.K.'s booster formulation is slightly different than the one being considered in the U.S.: It combats the original strain and Covid's original omicron variant. Clinical trials showed that it still generated a "good" immune response to BA.5, according to a U.K. regulatory agency.

The U.K. approval indicates that the U.S. may not be far behind: The two countries have had close timelines for green-lighting Covid shots over the past two years, from the original vaccines in December 2020 to booster shots in September 2021.

At the Chamber event, Jha emphasized the importance for every American to get a new booster as soon as they're eligible — whether they think they're at risk or not.

"It's going to be really important that people this fall and winter get the new shot. It's designed for the virus that's out there," Jha said. "All of the data suggests it should be highly effective against the new variants."

Update: This story has been updated to include comments from a CDC spokesperson.

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