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After decades of setbacks, an RSV vaccine

British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline has licensed Arexvy, the first FDA-approved vaccine for the respiratory virus RSV.

The agency approved the product for adults 60 and older.

“The hope is that this new vaccine will help prevent severe illness from RSV in older adults, especially those with weakened immune systems and underlying health conditions,” said Eugene Livar, assistant director of public health preparedness at Arizona Department of Health Services.

Vaccines for infants and one-year-olds should cross the FDA’s desk later this year.

Experts say Arexvy will save lives and could help blunt the impact of a possible tripledemic involving RSV, flu and COVID-19.

For most healthy adults, respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV, causes mild cold or flulike symptoms. But, much like COVID-19 and flu, it can lead to more serious illnesses like pneumonia.

“We're commonly concerned about a lot of the same populations: the very young, the elderly and those who are immunocompromised, that may not have ways to protect themselves and may be at greater risk for bad outcomes,” said Livar.

But he added that, unlike those viruses, RSV until now lacked a vaccine. That left doctors with no option but to treat the symptoms and health experts with no recourse but to advise the public to wash their hands, cover their coughs and sneezes, and stay home when sick.

That lack of community and family protection is one reason why Livar calls vaccines “one of the best tools that we have in our tool belt.”

“Getting vaccinated can reduce the severity of illness; it can help keep you out of the hospital; and it helps make sure that those resources are available to others in need,” he said. “So, by getting vaccinated, you can not only protect yourself, but you can protect others.”

In late June, Arexvy will head to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which will make recommendations regarding its use.

“We're looking for this to be approved in June — come out with those recommendations, get endorsed by the CDC and then become available for use,” said Livar.

Livar expects the vaccine will reach healthcare providers before the next RSV season, which typically starts just before winter.

Like much of the country, Arizona’s most recent RSV season was unusual. Cases started early, peaked in November instead of between January and February, and at 16,000 cases more than tripled the five-year average. A leading explanation blames the post-COVID-19 “return to normalcy.”

What’s more, those numbers likely tell only part of the story, since doctors only catch and report RSV when they test for it. State regulations require labs to report cases of people testing positive for RSV within five working days. But testing often occurs at the discretion of doctors, who might view it as unnecessary in healthy adults, for example.

For now, Arizona Department of Health Services is keeping an eye on the numbers.

“We're really continuing our surveillance activities and monitoring to see what happens this year, and to see if we have that same impact and numbers going forward like we did with flu and RSV, and then also keeping a close eye on COVID-19,” said Livar.

Nicholas Gerbis was a senior field correspondent for KJZZ from 2016 to 2024.