A woman shows the bandage on her shoulder from a COVID-19 vaccineShare on Pinterest
Experts say they hope there will be more clarity over when to get COVID-19 vaccines. FG Trade/Getty Images
  • Experts say COVID-19 vaccines are evolving as the pandemic eases into a more endemic stage.
  • They expect vaccines in the near future will be targeted toward variants, much like the current flu shots.
  • They also say COVID-19 vaccines could be administered on an annual basis soon.
  • In the meantime, they encourage people to get booster shots to build up immunity.

COVID-19 cases are increasing again and health officials are giving some worrisome predictions for the fall season.

For many people, that raises the question: What will COVID-19 vaccines look like after the summer ends?

The answer is that the vaccines may eventually become more targeted and perhaps more regularly scheduled.

“We are clearly transitioning from pandemic to what we call endemic,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, told Healthline. “That means it will continue to live with us and smolder around us and we are all learning how to contend with it.”

That learning includes the somewhat formidable task, he said, of knowing and understanding when and why we might need a vaccine booster.

Schaffner pointed out that hospitalizations are relatively stable even with the current rise in cases. So, he explained, the virus is doing exactly what infectious disease experts predicted at the start if not enough people were vaccinated quickly.

“It seeks out the previously unvaccinated, the older population, and the immune-compromised,’ he said. “The question is: how do we manage this?”

Will there eventually be an annual vaccination – and could it come soon?

Dr. Monica Gandhi, the director of the University of California San Francisco Center for AIDS Research, told Healthline that someday a once-a-year inoculation could exist. For now, though, it does not.

It’s important, she said, to understand how the current COVID-19 vaccines work and why boosters are necessary for the time being.

“The mRNA vaccines are powerful in terms of preventing severe disease with COVID-19 across populations because of the multifaceted immune response they generate,” she said.

While those antibodies will wane over time and perhaps become less effective against variants, Gandhi explained, they do more than produce antibodies.

“The vaccines also generate something called cellular immunity, which is much longer-lasting, and protect against severe disease in a more enduring fashion,” she said.

That, she said, gives her hope.

“Although we do not know how long memory B cells from the vaccine will [to kick in], survivors of the 1918 influenza pandemic were able to produce antibodies from memory B cells when their blood was exposed to the same strain nine decades later,” she said.

Gandhi believes an annual shot could come along at some point, mainly because it takes up to four days for vaccines to kick in – which could be too long for someone with serious underlying conditions.

“A plan to boost the vulnerable every year is compatible within terms of vaccinations moving forward,” she said.

Another question is whether more targeted vaccines will be necessary to deal with new COVID-19 variants.

Schaffner said the Food and Drug Administration is hinting that they will have what he calls “vaccine 2.0” available this fall.

That would be a vaccine that’s modified much the same way as an annual influenza vaccine.

Scientists would prepare a vaccine each year that’s the same basic vaccine but with adjusted compositions to ward off the variants that are anticipated.

Right now, influenza vaccines are quadrivalent; meaning they can protect from up to four flu variants.

The COVID-19 vaccines now protect from one. A 2.0 version, if it comes out this fall, will be bivalent, protecting against two strains.

Schaffner says there are scientists also working on 3.0 and 4.0 versions, but he has no information on a timeline.

In the meantime, Moderna officials said in late June that their Omicron-specific booster has performed well against the BA.4 and BA.5 variants.

Company officials say they hope to start shipping the new vaccine as early as August.

In the meantime, Schaffner is worried about hesitation on boosters as we move into fall.

“Only half (of those eligible) have had the third (booster), and the third solidifies your protection against hospitalization,” he said.

That leads him to believe people won’t be flocking to get boosted any time soon.

“I think we’re all going to continue to struggle with this,” he said.

Susan, a Colorado mother of two teens who believes in vaccines, said she’s confused over what they really need and when.

“I mean, I want to be vaccinated and I am,” she told Healthline. “But boosters? I kind of feel like they’re throwing them at me willy-nilly.”

How does someone know what the right choice is for them, given the variations in guidance from person to person?

Schaffner suggests reaching out to your healthcare professional, who knows details about your health history and can help you understand and decide.

For those who are older or immune-compromised, he says boosters are strongly advised.

Gandhi hopes for a clearer system of vaccines down the road.

“Once we get whole virus vaccines, there will be a lot less nuance as I think then that booster will be used across populations every time a new variant emerges,” she said.

But Schaffner wonders if we need more for the majority of the population to come on board with COVID-19 vaccines.

He does see one solution that might gain acceptance – though it does not exist as of yet. A vaccine that prevents infection.

“What could change all this? A brand new vaccine that is also capable of cutting off transmission,” he said. “That will get people’s attention.”