▶ Watch Video: Dr. Fauci says annual COVID-19 booster shots are likely to be needed

The COVID-19 vaccine is likely to become an annual shot that gets updated each year like the flu vaccine, Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a White House press briefing on the coronavirus response Tuesday.

“In the absence of a dramatically different variant, we likely are moving towards a path with a vaccination cadence similar to that of the annual influenza vaccine, with annual updated COVID-19 shots matched to the currently circulating strains for most of the population,” said Fauci, who serves as President Biden’s chief medical adviser and the head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. 

White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha called that an “important milestone.”

“For a large majority of Americans, we are moving to a point where a single annual COVID shot should provide a high degree of protection against serious illness all year,” Jha said. But he also noted, “For our highest risk individuals, and here I’m thinking about my elderly parents for instance, who are in their 80s, or one of my close friends who recently had a liver transplantation, individuals like that may need more than annual protection.” 

The administration has begun rolling out the first updated COVID boosters, which fight the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants as well as the original strain of the virus.

“By the end of this week, over 90% of Americans will live within five miles of these new, updated vaccines,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. “We will be ramping up our education and outreach efforts this month, as we head into October, when we expect more people to get their updated shots potentially together with their flu shots.”

Health officials believe the new booster formula will also offer protection against other strains should another variant arise, said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

“One of the very reasons for this bivalent vaccine is not just because it keeps the great protection of the original strain and because it improves the protection against the BA.5 variant, as laboratory data suggests, but also that the laboratory data suggests it will improve protection against other variants as well,” Walensky said. “So it gives us that breadth of protection that we might anticipate should another variant come through.”

These new doses are free and available to all Americans age 12 and up, while younger kids can get the vaccines previously authorized for their age groups. 

However, officials expressed concern that vaccines and treatments for coronavirus may no longer be free in the near future as federal funding is drying up.

Jha emphasized that Congress needs to support the ongoing pandemic response in order for the U.S. to be prepared if a new “curveball” variant were to emerge.

“Congress is aware that if we don’t continue to fund response, we can easily go backwards,” he said. “We had planned on having an adequate stock pile of PPE, personal protective equipment. Should there be another surge, we will not have that stockpile. We will not have enough tests in our Strategic National Stockpile should we see another Omicron-like event.”

“Congress has not stepped up,” Jha added.