The rise of the BA.5 variant is spurring new calls for funding for an Operation Warp Speed 2.0 to accelerate development of next-generation COVID-19 vaccines that can better target new variants.
The BA.5 subvariant of omicron that now makes up the majority of U.S. COVID-19 cases is sparking concern because it has a greater ability to evade the protection of current vaccines than past strains of the virus did.
Pfizer and Moderna are working on updated vaccines that target BA.5 that could be ready this fall, but experts say that by the time they are ready, a new variant very well could have taken hold.
As alternatives to vaccine makers chasing each variant, experts point to research on “pan-coronavirus” vaccines that are “variant-proof,” targeting multiple variants, as well as nasal vaccines that could drastically cut down on transmission of the virus.
There is ongoing research on these next-generation vaccines, but unlike in 2020, when the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed helped speed the development of the original vaccine, there is less funding and assistance this time around.
COVID-19 funding that could help develop and manufacture new vaccines more quickly has been stalled in Congress for months.
“There’s no Operation Warp Speed,” said Eric Topol, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research. “So it’s moving very slowly. But at least it’s moving.”
Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed this week that the U.S. needs “urgent investment” in next-generation vaccines and “we need an ‘Operation Warp Speed Part 2.’”
“It does not work to keep on playing whack-a-mole” by trying to adapt vaccines to each variant, she said in an interview.
But Topol said the Biden administration is hindered by lack of funding from Congress to step up efforts on the improved vaccines.
“Those who are interested, in the administration, the roadblock for them is they can’t get any funding,” he said.
Administration health officials pointed to funding when asked about next-generation vaccines at a press briefing on Tuesday.
“We need resources to continue that effort and to accelerate that effort,” said Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert. “So although we’re doing a lot and the field looks promising, in order to continue it, we really do need to have a continual flow of resources to do that.”
But COVID-19 funding has been stuck in Congress for months. Republicans have long said they do not see any urgency in approving the money. Democrats, while generally calling for the funding, have been caught up in their own internal divisions, like when a group of House Democrats objected to a way to pay for the new funding in March.
“Of course more funding would accelerate some parts of the development,” Karin Bok, acting deputy director of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Vaccine Research Center, said in an interview.
She also cautioned that development of next-generation vaccines like nasal vaccines would take longer than the original vaccines, because less groundwork has been laid over the preceding years.
Experts stress that even for BA.5, the current vaccines still provide important protection against severe disease and hospitalization, and are urging people to get their booster shots now. But there is potential for further improvement in the vaccines as well.
Aside from funding, another obstacle is obtaining copies of the existing COVID-19 vaccines for use in research, said Pamela Bjorkman, a California Institute of Technology professor working on a next-generation vaccine.
“I would say we’ve wasted at least six months,” with various procedural hurdles on that front, she said. “It’s just ridiculous.”
For example, she said at one point when her team was able to get access to the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, it then took two or three months to get an import permit to send it from the United Kingdom.
“This is a hot topic,” Bok, of the NIH, said of access to existing vaccine doses for researchers. “The government is working very hard on an agreement with the companies to provide it to us and to all the investigators…that are funded by NIH.”
Asked about providing vaccine doses for researchers and any talks with the administration on that front, a Moderna spokesperson said: “We do provide vaccine in certain investigator-initiated studies where physicians and scientists propose research they have designed and want to conduct with our support,” pointing to a South African study as an example.
More broadly, the White House says it is working on accelerating next-generation vaccine research and will have more announcements soon.
“Let me be very clear: We clearly need a true next-generation vaccine,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha told reporters on Tuesday.
“You’ll hear more from us in the days and weeks ahead,” he added. “This is something that we have been working quite assiduously on.”
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