FDA Authorizes New Vaccine as COVID-19 Surges Again
You may be tired of hearing our primary care doctors in Delray Beach tell you that the latest version of the COVID-19 virus is the worst one ever, but that is actually the case with the current omicron subvariant, BA.5. That’s because it’s the nature of viruses to evolve to survive and thrive.
And as we’ve seen since the beginning of the pandemic, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is particularly good at this. The BA.5 subvariant is currently responsible for over 80 percent of the new COVID-19 infections in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Good news, bad news
The good news is the symptoms resulting from a BA.5 infection aren’t usually as severe as the original strain and subsequent variants like alpha and delta. That’s because all the omicron variants and subvariants seem to settle higher in the respiratory tract, instead of replicating deep in the lungs, where they can cause more damage.
The bad news is it’s especially good at evading antibodies, from both vaccines and prior infections. That means many people are catching COVID-19 for a second and third time. And recent studies suggest that the more often a person becomes infected, the greater their risk for the debilitating symptoms of long COVID, as well as for the more serious outcomes, such as heart attacks.
CNN reports that out of nearly 300,000 infections since March 2021, the share comprising reinfections almost doubled, from 3.6 percent during the BA.2 wave in May to 6.4 percent during the BA.5 wave in July.
The good news is these reinfections don’t seem to be getting closer together. The average time between infections was about nine months in April, and remains so today, although some people are being reinfected sooner.
The bad news is that BA.5 appears to be the most contagious version yet.
This is why the news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC late last month approved a new coronavirus vaccine from Novavax was particularly welcome.
This vaccine now gives us a fourth weapon against the coronavirus, joining the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna and the “viral vector” vaccine from Johnson & Johnson.
The Novavax vaccine is based on older technology, the protein-based type typically used to grow vaccines such as those for the flu, pertussis, and shingles.
The makers hope this more traditional type of vaccine will appeal to those who shunned the newer types out of fear they were “untested.” (In actuality, of course, the mRNA and Johnson & Johnson vaccine technology has been in use for more than 20 years, including for the original SARS-CoV-1 virus from 2002.)
Another advantage is that it doesn’t cause the allergies some people experience with the mRNA vaccines and is easier to store.
Although the FDA analysis identified five cases of heart inflammation in younger men who received the shot, Novavax argued that the rates were not only exceedingly low but also were the same in both the vaccine and placebo groups.
“We believe there is insufficient evidence to establish a causal relationship,” the company said in a statement.
Wayne A. Marasco, an FDA advisor and professor of cancer immunology and virology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, told The Washington Post that the Novavax vaccine appeared to give good protection even against the BA.5 subvariant, unlike the earlier vaccines.
More bad news
But back to the bad news: Even though BA.5 (and BA.4, which is also circulating) tends to cause milder symptoms than earlier strains, it’s by no means benign.
One expert called it “the worst version of the virus that we’ve seen,” partly because of its ability to evade antibodies and spread so readily, and partly because it is still causing serious illness and deaths. Another called it “astonishingly infectious.”
The number of COVID-19 deaths in the country increased by 11 percent in the first two weeks in July, and there are now more than 400 Americans dying from the virus every day.
Unfortunately, many people suffering from pandemic fatigue have decided to resume their pre-pandemic lives, despite the continued risk.
“It’s the Wild West out there,” Ziyad Al-Aly, an epidemiologist at Washington University in St. Louis, told The Post.
“There are no public health measures at all. We’re in a very peculiar spot, where the risk is vivid and it’s out there, but we’ve let our guard down and we’ve chosen, deliberately, to expose ourselves and make ourselves more vulnerable,” he said.
“It feels as though everyone has given up,” added Mercedes Carnethon, an epidemiologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Lesson from Biden
Now that President Biden has tested positive for COVID-19, some are pointing to him as an illustration of how contagious BA.5 is, and recommending that more people—especially those at high risk for serious illness—continue to take precautions in addition to being fully vaccinated and boosted.
Because, contrary to what many believe, vaccines won’t prevent you from becoming infected. They just substantially lower your chances of serious illness and death.
Julia Raifman, a public health professor at Boston University, has called for reinstituting mask mandates, holding more gatherings outdoors, and other mitigations such as improved indoor ventilation.
“This is an opportunity to not minimize or exaggerate the president’s infection—and to acknowledge that it is a serious illness for people who are over 70,” she told The Washington Post.