The emergence of the BA.5 variant has prompted new calls for funding for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 to accelerate the development of next-generation COVID-19 vaccines that can better target new variants.
The BA.5 variant of the omicron that now makes up the majority of US COVID-19 cases is of concern because it has a greater ability to evade protection from current vaccines than previous strains of the virus.
Pfizer and Moderna are working on updated vaccines targeting BA.5 that could be ready this fall, but experts say that by the time they are ready, a good new variant could have been in place.
As alternatives to vaccine makers chasing each variant, experts point to the search for “universal coronavirus” vaccines that are “variant resistant,” targeting multiple types, as well as intranasal vaccines that can significantly reduce transmission of the virus.
There is ongoing research into these next-generation vaccines, but unlike in 2020, when the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed helped accelerate development of the original vaccine, there was less funding and assistance this time around.
COVID-19 funding that could help develop and manufacture new vaccines more quickly has stalled in Congress for several months.
“There is no velocity warp process,” said Eric Topol, professor of molecular medicine at Scripps Research. “So it is moving very slowly. But at least it is moving.”
Lena Wayne, a professor of public health at George Washington University, wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post this week that the United States needs “urgent investment” in next-generation vaccines and “we need ‘Operation Warp Speed Part 2’.”
“It doesn’t work to keep playing whack-a-mole” by trying to adapt vaccines to each variable, she said in an interview.
But Topol said the Biden administration is being held back by a lack of funding from Congress to ramp up efforts on improved vaccines.
“Those who are interested in management, the obstacle to them is that they can’t get any funding,” he said.
Administration health officials referred to the funding when asked about next-generation vaccines at a news conference Tuesday.
“We need resources to continue this effort and accelerate this effort,” said Anthony Fauci, the government’s chief infectious disease expert. “So even though we’re doing a lot and the field looks promising, in order to keep it going, we really need a constant flow of resources to do that.”
But funding for COVID-19 has been stuck in Congress for months. Republicans have long said they see no urgency in approving the money. While Democrats have generally been demanding the funding, they have been caught up in their own internal divisions, as when a group of House Democrats objected to a way to push the new funding back in March.
“Of course more funding will speed up some parts of development,” Karen Bock, acting deputy director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Vaccine Research Center, said in an interview.
It also warned that developing next-generation vaccines such as nasal vaccines would take longer than the original vaccines, because fewer foundations were laid during previous years.
Experts stress that even for BA.5, current vaccines still provide important protection against severe disease and hospitalization, and they urge people to get booster doses now. But there is potential for further improvement in vaccines, too.
Besides funding, another hurdle is getting copies of existing COVID-19 vaccines to use in research, said Pamela Björkman, a California Institute of Technology professor working on a next-generation vaccine.
“I would say we wasted at least six months,” she said, with various procedural hurdles on that front. “This is just ridiculous.”
For example, she said at one point when her team had access to the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, it took two or three months to get an import permit to send it from the UK.
“This is a hot topic” about making current vaccine doses available to researchers, said Bock, of the National Institutes of Health. “The government is working hard on an agreement with the companies to provide it to us and to all the investigators… that are funded by the National Institutes of Health.”
In response to a question about providing vaccine doses to researchers and any conversations with management on this, a Moderna spokesperson said: “We provide a vaccine in some investigator-initiated studies where doctors and scientists suggest research they designed and want to do with our support,” citing the South African study as an example. .
More broadly, the White House says it is accelerating next-generation vaccine research and will make more announcements soon.
“Let me be very clear: Clearly we need a real next-generation vaccine,” Ashish Jha, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, told reporters on Tuesday.
“You’ll hear more from us in the coming days and weeks,” he added. “This is something we have been working very hard for.”