The U.S. is tracking several coronavirus omicron subvariants that more easily evade immunity, but the new booster shots should protect against them, a top health official said on Tuesday.
Health officials are closely watching the subvariants because they render many treatments ineffective, said Dr. Ashish Jha, head of the White House Covid task force.
But the new booster shots available in the U.S. should provide a much higher degree of protection against the variants because they all descend from omicron BA.2 or omicron BA.5, Jha told reporters at the White House.
The U.S. rolled out updated boosters that target the omicron BA.5 variant in September. Pfizer’s new shots are available for people ages 12 and up, while adults ages 18 and older are eligible for Moderna’s boosters.
Omicron BA.5 is causing about 80% of new infections in the U.S., according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But other subvariants such a BA.2.75, BA.4.6 and BF.7 are making small inroads, according to the data.
Jha said health officials expect infections to increase from November through January. He added that it is hard to predict whether there will be a major surge because the virus is evolving.
People should get their new booster by Halloween so they have protection by the time families gather for Thanksgiving, he said. But people who recently caught 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 CDC data. Jha said he expects more people will get the shots this month before the holiday season.
U.S. health officials are most concerned about the elderly. Jha told reporters last week that 70% of those dying from Covid are 75 and older. He said most elderly people who are dying either are not up to date on their vaccines or are not receiving treatments after they have a breakthrough infection.
More than 300 people are still dying a day from Covid on average, according to CDC data. Jha said last week that the deaths are unacceptable given the wide availability of vaccines and treatments.
“If you are up to date with your vaccines and if you get 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 pass the White House’s request for $22 billion in Covid funding. The Biden administration had to shift money around to find funding to stockpile the new booster shots.
As a consequence, the U.S. does not have an adequate national stockpile of personal protective equipment or Covid tests, Jha said.
The U.S. does not have money to invest in developing the next generation of vaccines and treatments, Jha said. He added that the current booster campaign has been more limited because of the lack of funding.
“No doubt about it, that our response has been hampered by that lack of funding,” Jha said.