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WHO recommends new targets for COVID-19 boosters

COVID-19 vaccines and boosters still reduce the likelihood of serious illness and hospitalization. But they’re less effective at protecting against symptomatic COVID-19 — and at fighting the immune-evasive strains currently circulating.

Now, new guidance from the World Health Organization Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 Vaccine Composition recommends COVID-19 boosters leave out the original “index” strain, which no longer shows up in humans, and instead focus on combating the XBB lineages currently circulating.

The group said that including the index virus (including early variants such as alpha, beta, gamma and delta) in bi- or multivalent vaccines would effectively dilute boosters: Index vaccines produce undetectable or very low levels of neutralizing antibodies to lineages that currently predominate globally, such as XBB.1.5, XBB.1.16 and XBB.1.9.

Reuters reports that major vaccine producers like Pfizer/BioNtech, Moderna and Novavax  are already working on XBB targets and should finalize their booster recipes later this year, once the FDA releases its recommendations. The agency is slated to hold a meeting of outside experts in June.

Meanwhile, just who provides and pays for vaccines and boosters remains in a state of transition; the U.S. ended its emergency declarations last week, when Arizona Public Health Association director Will Humble said “if you want to get the booster shot this fall, then you'd have to check and see, OK, who's in network for my health plan? And where can I go to get the vaccine?”

Nicholas Gerbis joined KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk in 2016. A longtime science, health and technology journalist and editor, his extensive background in related nonprofit and science communications inform his reporting on Earth and space sciences, neuroscience and behavioral health, and bioscience/biotechnology.Apart from travel and three years in Delaware spent earning his master’s degree in physical geography (climatology), Gerbis has spent most of his life in Arizona. He also holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and a bachelor’s degree in geography (climatology/meteorology), also from ASU.Gerbis briefly “retired in reverse” and moved from Arizona to Wisconsin, where he taught science history and science-fiction film courses at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is glad to be back in the Valley and enjoys contributing to KJZZ’s Untold Arizona series.During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gerbis focused almost solely on coronavirus-related stories and analysis. In addition to reporting on the course of the disease and related research, he delved into deeper questions, such as the impact of shutdowns on science and medicine, the roots of vaccine reluctance and the policies that exacerbated the virus’s impact, particularly on vulnerable populations.