The White House wants to accelerate the development of next-generation COVID-19 vaccines, Stat News reported Monday. Ideally, future vaccines would offer longer-lasting protection against infection with and transmission of the virus, not just serious illness and death.
Federal officials, researchers, and representatives from pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna will meet Tuesday at a White House “summit” to discuss next steps. It’s unclear if President Biden — who currently has COVID-19 — will participate.
The currently available COVID-19 vaccines still work well to keep most people from getting seriously ill or dying from COVID-19. But the churn of new variants of the virus — most recently with the various forms of the omicron variant — has cut into the vaccines’ effectiveness at preventing infection and milder illnesses. In the near-term, pharmaceutical companies and the Food and Drug Administration are working to develop updated vaccine boosters targeting omicron.
But experts say chasing variants isn’t the best or most sustainable approach to vaccine development. The White House is looking at two approaches for next-generation vaccines, Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, told Stat News. The first is nasal spray vaccines, which would generate an immune response and block the virus right when it enters the body. The second is to create a vaccine that targets bits of the virus shared between variants, which would stay more effective even as the virus continues to change. Both will be difficult scientific challenges — nasal spray COVID-19 vaccines are still experimental, and vaccine developers have been struggling for years to create universal flu vaccines.
Getting the investment necessary to move these next sets of vaccines forward will be an additional challenge. The White House is already struggling to find funding for COVID-19 response efforts, including vaccines. Republican lawmakers have blocked efforts to provide more COVID-19 aid funding, and Democratic leadership is struggling to figure out a path forward.
Without new approaches to vaccination, public health efforts could be stuck playing catch-up with the virus — which is still killing over 400 people a day in the US.
“The virus is constantly evolving,” Jha told Stat News. “We’re having to evolve with it, that’s fine. But over the long run, we really need a serious breakthrough.”