EU regulator warns of ‘disappointing’ uptake of vaccine boosters

November 24 (Reuters) – The European Union’s recent intake of COVID-19 vaccine booster doses has been ‘quite disappointing’, an official said on Thursday, amid fears that protection against severe cases of the disease will weaken over the winter could.

In groups considered to be most at risk, such as the elderly and the immunocompromised, the European average was only 29% of the rates of follow-up or booster vaccination.

“It is worrying that those most at risk of hospitalization or severe COVID are not adequately protected,” the European Medicines Agency’s head of health threats and vaccines strategy, Marco Cavaleri, said in a news conference.

Although there hasn’t been a significant increase in COVID-19 case rates in recent weeks, Cavaleri said that could change in the colder winter months.

WHO data released late Wednesday showed 724,000 new COVID-19 cases were reported in the EU last week, down 11% from the previous week. In early October, as experts warned of a new wave of COVID-19, the number of weekly cases hit 1.5 million.

“This virus is evolving rapidly, and new subvariants of Omicron and its progeny are on the rise,” Cavaleri said, adding that these are more resistant to vaccines.

NEW ANTIBODY TREATMENTS NEEDED

Cavaleri said it’s concerning that available antibody treatments to fight the virus in infected patients are no longer effective against new subvariants.

The EMA intends to issue new guidelines for healthcare providers on the subject of such treatments, he said.

Last week, the UK agency that determines whether medicines should be used in the National Health Service (NHS) said it had recommended stopping use of five COVID-19 treatments, including the Merck & Co antiviral pill (MRK. N) for high-risk patients, citing concerns about cost-effectiveness.

In January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also restricted the use of some of these treatments because data showed reduced efficacy against the Omicron variant.

Cavaleri said the EMA is in contact with companies working on next-generation monoclonal antibodies against COVID-19 to speed up development.

The EU regulator will discuss the issue, including the design of clinical trials for next-generation treatments, at a meeting with the US Food and Drug Administration and other international experts in December, he added.

One antiviral drug that is proving effective against all COVID-19 variants and subvariants is Pfizer Inc.’s (PFE.N) Paxlovid, he said. The drug has also been shown to prevent post-acute, longer-term effects of the disease, he added.

However, immediate access to Paxlovid remains an issue in the EU and EMA is working with governments to change this, he said.

The agency’s chief medical officer, Steffen Thirstrup, warned that a fall in the number of cases in recent weeks should not create a false sense of security, as a rebound in cases could easily put vulnerable groups back at risk.

“Although many societies have opened up and are considered more or less back to normal, there are still many viruses in circulation,” Thirstrup said.

The Biden administration said earlier this month that the United States will maintain the public health emergency status of the pandemic, rather than phasing it out in January.

Officials cited the possibility of a spike in COVID cases over the winter and the need for more time to transition from a public health emergency to a private market as two factors that contributed to the decision.

Reporting by Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt and Maggie Fick in London; Edited by David Goodman and Elaine Hardcastle

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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