Key HHS Agency Officer: Annual COVID Booster Shots May Be Needed

Key HHS Agency Officer: Annual COVID Booster Shots May Be Needed gary disbrow testifies at hearing Then-Acting Director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority Gary Disbrow testifies at a Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill on July 2, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Graeme Jennings-Pool/Getty Images)

By Sandy Fitzgerald | Tuesday, 11 May 2021 02:34 PM

Annual COVID-19 booster shots may be needed to continue the fight against the disease and could become as common as a yearly flu shot, according to Gary Disbrow, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, the federal government's primary biomedical research agency.

"We’re in the process right now, working with our interagency colleagues as well as the Food and Drug Administration, to determine if we’re going to need potentially annual boosters for any of the potential circulating strains," Disbrow told The Hill. "Right now we do feel that we will potentially need a boost in the fall for those people, especially those above the age of 65, where you do see a more dramatic waning of immunity than you do in younger people."

BARDA, which heads federal vaccine research and development and therapeutics for pathogens, has played a major role in the development of COVID-19 vaccines, and Disbrow said the agency will continue to be the main force in preparing for future pandemics.

Disbrow took over at BARDA in November. He had served as acting director after his predecessor, Rick Bright, was fired after clashing with Trump administration officials over the response to the pandemic and the focus on hydroxychloroquine.

Top scientists at the agency, even before the pandemic hit, helped develop the mRNA technology used in the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

"We had supported Moderna in their technology previously for Zika, helping them scale up," said Disbrow. "At the time they were very, very small scale for manufacturing. So even the investments that we made in 2016 for the Zika outbreak for Moderna has assisted them for being capable to manufacture at commercial scale their COVID-19 vaccine."

He added that the investment started in January and February 2020, before the outbreak took hold and before the agency got supplemental funding.

The work also started before the Trump administration started its Operation Warp Speed initiative, said Disbrow, because "you never know which vaccine technology is going to be the one that provides the highest efficacy against different pathogens. In this case, it happens to be the mRNA vaccines.”

Meanwhile, researchers are now focusing on the next generation of COVID-19 vaccines, along with therapeutics that have already been granted emergency use authorizations by the Food and Drug Administration, said Disbrow.

"We're now turning towards antiviral small molecule drugs which are critically important,” he said. Those drugs inhibit the reproduction of a virus, and some have the potential to apply to a "broad spectrum meeting against multiple families of the family of coronavirus is not just SARS-CoV-2."

Disbrow said the new therapeutics could even find the long-elusive cure for the common cold, which is part of the coronavirus family.

Meanwhile, Disbrow said he hopes his agency will take an even more prominent role in future pandemic planning, rather than being left in the background waiting for the next illness to come along.

"It seems that BARDA is always brought to the forefront during pandemics," he said. "It would be really helpful if BARDA had additional funding to establish an emerging infectious disease division within our organization so that we can plan for future pandemics."