President Joe Biden will announce plans today to increase protections against COVID-19 this winter as the delta coronavirus variant continues to ravage the country and the worrisome omicron variant looms. Biden will make the announcement this afternoon in remarks during his visit to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
The president’s plan includes expanding access to free at-home rapid testing and setting policy to ensure that over-the-counter, at-home tests are covered by health insurance plans. It also tightens health protocols for travel. Starting early next week, every inbound international traveler to the US will need to test negative within one day of their departure, regardless of nationality and vaccination status. The plan also calls for extending mask requirements on airplanes, trains, and public transit into March.
To fight surges in cases from delta and omicron, the administration is assembling over 60 emergency medical response teams to deploy to states in crisis. The administration is also working to secure 13 million doses of antiviral treatments.
But the plan’s main thrust is to bolster efforts to get more Americans fully vaccinated and boosted. Though current vaccines are widely available and highly effective against delta, only 59.4 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, and only 21.2 percent of fully vaccinated people are boosted. It’s still unclear how effective the current vaccines will be against omicron, which has mutations indicating that it can evade some immune defenses. Vaccine makers and researchers are racing to assess vaccine efficacy against the highly mutated variant. But health experts largely expect that full vaccination and boosters will continue to protect against severe disease and death.
Still, vaccine makers are not taking any chances and are planning ahead for omicron-specific vaccines and booster shots. On Wednesday, Moderna’s president, Stephen Hoge, told Reuters that the company has already started working on an omicron-specific booster shot. Hoge said he expects the booster will be tested and ready to submit to the Food and Drug Administration for authorization as early as March. Hoge also said the company is working on a multivalent vaccine dose that would target four variants, including omicron.
Likewise, Pfizer and its partner BioNTech are also charging ahead with an omicron-specific shot and have suggested a similar timeline.
“We do take the new variant of concern, omicron, with seriousness,” Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer’s chief scientific officer, told STAT on Tuesday. “It can indeed be a potential new threatening wave… although we don’t know that yet. But we always start with being prepared for the worst.”
Dolsten said Pfizer expects it will be able to conduct a clinical trial with an omicron-specific shot in about two months. In three months—early March—the companies will be able to produce the shots at high commercial scale. That would mean about 330 million doses a month.
Source: Ars Technica