Experts recommend update to COVID vaccines

As a new COVID variant sweeps across Australia just in time for winter, the World Health Organization (WHO) is recommending vaccine manufacturers update their vaccine formulas to fight back.

It’s been a while since most of us have heard anything about COVID and its various strains. But a particularly potent strain, known as the JN.1 variant, has been causing havoc across the country.

First detected here in August 2023, JN.1 has become the dominant COVID strain both in Australia and globally. It’s fuelled an alarming spike in case numbers this year, and has quickly pushed all other variants out of the way.

Studies show the JN.1 variant is so potent because it has evolved a number of different mechanisms for evading immune responses.

Immune system

In fact, it’s so good at avoiding the immune system, that the WHO is now recommending vaccine manufacturers update their formulas to account for these improvements, claiming current vaccines will not be sufficient.

“Future formulations of COVID-19 vaccines should aim to induce enhanced neutralising antibody responses to JN.1 and its descendent lineages,” the WHO statement reads.

Professor Raina MacIntyre, who was part of the WHO team that made the recommendation, told SBS current vaccines that target the XBB variant won’t be as effective as a new formulation targeting JN.1.

“The JN.1 and variants are the dominant variants in circulation, so the XBB vaccine is not as well-matched. It will still provide protection, but [a new vaccine] will provide better protection,” she said.

Biostatistician and epidemiologist Professor Adrian Esterman agrees with the need for a JN.1-specific formulation, pointing out JN.1 itself may already be evolving again.

“The current vaccine isn’t optimal with new strains popping up,” he says.

“New subvariants like KP2 in the US are derivatives of the JN.1 strain, so a vaccine targeting JN.1 would be more effective against the new subvariants popping up.”

When will we see JN.1 vaccines?

It’s expected that vaccines targeting the JN.1 variant will begin appearing in northern hemisphere markets later this year.

But epidemiologist Professor Catherine Bennett told the Sydney Morning Herald we shouldn’t expect to see them in Australia until the end of the year at the latest and more likely sometime next year.

She recommends people get the XBB booster now before winter, rather than wait for any new vaccines to arrive.

“The point is, don’t wait for this next magic booster,” she said.

“It’s good to see we’ve got this capacity now to keep monitoring what’s happening with the virus [variants] but … for now, the main focus is to try and get ahead of a wave with your vaccination to give yourself time before your exposure risk goes up in the community.”

Why will it take so long?

The process of updating and manufacturing a new vaccine using mRNA technology only takes around two months, says Prof. MacIntyre, but the real delay is waiting for the new drug to be approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).

“The speed of the process, from recommending it, to TGA approvals to roll out is one challenge, which adds to the delay in getting vaccines into arms,” she said.

Clinical microbiologist Dr Paul Griffin says Australia’s drug approval process is noticeably slower than those seen in other countries.

“Australia is pretty conservative in terms of approving quickly, we can be weeks or even months behind other countries like the United States,” he said.

“Every year new flu vaccines are approved very efficiently in Australia, but that’s not the case with COVID-19 processes.”

Do you think the process for COVID vaccine approval should be streamlined? Have you had JN.1 yet? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: Data shows alarming COVID complacency

Brad Lockyer
Brad Lockyer
Brad has deep knowledge of retirement income, including Age Pension and other government entitlements, as well as health, money and lifestyle issues facing older Australians. Keen interests in current affairs, politics, sport and entertainment. Digital media professional with more than 10 years experience in the industry.
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