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What’s the right vaccine strategy to fight against COVID variants?

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Vials of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine sit on a table at a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in San Rafael, California.

The U.S. government is purchasing a Moderna COVID booster that targets both the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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The United Kingdom has become the first nation to conditionally approve Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine that targets both the original strain that kicked off the pandemic and a strain of the omicron variant.

The approval comes as the U.S. government is focusing its strategy on vaccines that target two most recent strains of omicron.

The differing approaches in the U.K. and the United States highlight the lack of global coordination to get the coronavirus pandemic under control. That’s according to Prashant Yadav, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.

“We are at a point where we need a clearer way of determining what will be the types of boosters that we need in the future,” Yadav said.

The U.K. is pursuing a vaccine strategy that targets the BA.1 strain of omicron while the U.S. is looking to a vaccine against BA.4 and BA.5 — omicron strains that emerged more recently.

Yadav said that patchwork could complicate the production strategy for Moderna and other vaccine suppliers.

“It’s fragmenting their total supply into versions that they have to manufacture and distribute dependent on which country it is going to,” he said, adding that it’s inefficient. “We want the system to be working at its maximum throughput so that we can get the boosters to many people quickly in the fall.”

Scientists disagree about what makes the most sense.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor at the University of California, San Francisco, said populations are better off waiting for a version of the vaccine that’s closest to the dominant strain at a given time.

“The antibodies that we raise by getting these vaccines are really specifically targeted towards that subvariant,” she said. However, she added that even older versions offer some protection against severe disease.

That’s why Dr. Vin Gupta, a pulmonary critical care physician at the University of Washington School of Medicine, advocates moving forward with what’s available.

“In my view, there is no need to wait for a BA.4- or BA.5-specific booster, because you risk delaying the rollout,” Gupta said.

And delaying the next phase of vaccines here in the U.S. is a risk, he said, that isn’t worth it.

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