WHO lays out plan for COVID vaccines to tackle new variants

Vaccine vials in orange tray

The World Health Organization (WHO) technical advisory group on COVID-19 vaccines today weighed in on potential updates to COVID-19 vaccines in light of emerging variants such as Omicron, outlining different options and what data are needed to guide new strategies.

In other developments, countries experiencing later Omicron surges—especially in Asia—continue to report cases at or near record daily highs.

And, in the United States, weekly pediatric COVID-19 cases dropped below 100,000, part of a 6-week decline from the Omicron peak in children.

Variants may prompt vaccine tweaks

In a statement, the WHO expert group said it strongly recommends the current vaccines and boosters, because they continue to provide high levels of protection against severe disease and death, even against the backdrop of Omicron spread. However, they said to optimize protection in the future, different approaches may be needed, such as monovalent versions that target a specific variant or a polyvalent vaccine that protects against multiple ones.

Earlier this year, Moderna and Pfizer announced the start of clinical trials to test Omicron-specific vaccines. Also, testing is under way in Israel to assess the effectiveness of a fourth dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine against the Omicron variant.

Ideally, future vaccines would limit transmission as well as cut infections and deaths, the group said. And though pansarbecovirus vaccines and vaccines that prompt mucosal immunity might be useful, they added that timeframes for development and production are uncertain.

They urged vaccine makers to keep tracking vaccine performance of current vaccines and those being developed against specific variants and to share the data with WHO technical advisors so that the group can consider whether any vaccine strain adjustments are needed.

The group's statement on COVID-19 vaccine composition is its second and follows its initial recommendations in January of this year.

Hot spots in Hong Kong, Korea, New Zealand

Hong Kong reported more than 43,000 new cases today, as mainland officials pushed for leaders to maintain a "dynamic zero" strategy, according to Reuters. Also, Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection launched a new online system for members of the public to report their rapid COVID-19 test results, a step aimed at more accurately tracking illness patterns.

Meanwhile, the mainland's spike in activity continues at its highest level in 2 years, with 175 more symptomatic local cases reported today, along with 330 more local asymptomatic infections, according to the country's National Health Commission.

In South Korea, another area experiencing a later Omicron surge, daily cases are down a bit from a record high on Mar 6 but still remain above 200,000 per day.

Elsewhere, New Zealand today reported a daily record of nearly 24,000 cases, and illnesses in healthcare workers is becoming a staffing issue, according to ABC News. Health officials are now allowing health workers to work if they are mildly ill.

US pediatric cases drop below 100,000

In US developments, for the first time since August 2021, the weekly number of pediatric COVID-19 cases in the United States dropped below 100,000, to 69,000 for the week ending on Mar 3, according to the latest update from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

"Reported COVID-19 cases among children spiked dramatically in 2022 during the Omicron variant surge, over 4.8 million child cases were reported since the beginning of January," the AAP said. "Over 12.7 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic; almost 670,000 of these cases have been added in the past 4 weeks."

For 6 weeks, however, cases have been declining.

In related news, Florida's surgeon general said yesterday that the state will formally recommend against COVID-19 vaccinations for healthy children, the Associated Press reports. Florida is the first state to disregard COVID-19 vaccination guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which encourage vaccination among all children ages 5 and older.

The CDC COVID Data Tracker shows that 65.1% of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, 76.5% have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 44.1% of fully vaccinated Americans have received a booster dose.

The United States reported 67,516 new COVID-19 cases yesterday and 1,686 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins tracker.

The 7-day average of new daily cases is 43,250, with 1,473 daily deaths, according to the New York Times tracker.

CIDRAP News Reporter Stephanie Soucheray contributed to this story.

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