Get COVID-19 booster now if eligible, ECDC boss urges

Countries should start boosting older people a second time with COVID-19 shots, the head of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said on Wednesday, stressing that waiting for new variant vaccines in the fall could be too late.

“The risk for people is now,” said Andrea Ammon, director of the ECDC, referencing the sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in the European Union driven by the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 strains. 

“If I get offered this vaccine now, I will take it now,” she told members of the European Parliament’s special committee on COVID-19. She underlined that the existing vaccines continue to offer protection against severe disease and death against these variants.

Earlier this week, the ECDC and the European Medicines Agency called on European countries to urgently offer a second COVID-19 booster to people aged between 60 and 79 and to medically vulnerable individuals, expanding upon their recommendation in April for those over the age of 80 to receive a second booster.

While vaccines modified to target versions of the Omicron variant are likely to be authorized in September, many European countries are seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations now, Ammon said. It’s projected that the BA.5 subvariant of Omicron will be dominant in most EU countries by the end of the month, she added. 

Many EU countries have planned vaccination campaigns starting from September, but “now is the time to make this effort, because by September, we assume that most countries are at the peak or already over the peak,” by which time, the protective impact of another booster campaign will be reduced, Ammon said. 

Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer are working on bivalent vaccines using their mRNA technology. Their vaccines targeting the first Omicron strain, BA.1, combined with the original variant, are most advanced and currently under rolling review at the European Medicines Agency.

The companies are also working on bivalent vaccines targeting both the original strain as well Omicron strains BA.4 and BA.5, said Pierre Delsaux, head of the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), also addressing the committee.

“No final decision has been made on which bivalent vaccines will be available and when it will be available, because both need to get an authorization from the [European Medicines Agency],” he said.  

Delsaux also said that two further adapted vaccines would also likely become available later in the year.

Both Sanofi/GSK and HIPRA are developing adjuvanted, recombinant protein vaccines targeting two variants. Sanofi/GSK’s vaccine targets the Beta and original strains, while HIPRA’s targets the Alpha and Beta variants. Both products are under review at the EMA.

The European Commission currently has an advanced purchase agreement with Sanofi, subject to the vaccine’s authorization. But with HIPRA, there is no longer the legal basis for an advanced purchase agreement, Delsaux said, so HERA is currently negotiating a joint procurement deal.

Meanwhile, the hope is to eventually develop a vaccine offering durable protection against all possible coronavirus diseases, something Delsaux said HERA is willing to invest money in to make a reality. As it stands, however, vaccines continue to protect against severe disease and death, but less so infection, with immunity waning after some months.

Many EU countries have scaled back their coronavirus measures, including surveillance. Ammon reiterated the importance of systematic surveillance not only for COVID-19 but also for other respiratory diseases like influenza. 

On this, countries can expect a guiding document next Monday, the ECDC director said. There will also be a further guide on vaccination considerations for the fall.