New shots targeting the latest version of the Omicron variant are available. When should you get yours? Here’s what experts recommend.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention greenlit a new tool in September for battling the pandemic: updated booster shots. Dr. Ashish Jha, who leads the White House’s pandemic response, has urged people to get vaccinated by Halloween, so that they can mount an immune response before gathering for Thanksgiving.
The new shots target the Omicron subvariant BA.5, the dominant version of the virus. Here’s what you need to know.
The new vaccine is available at pharmacies and community health centers. Many mass-vaccination clinics across the country have closed, so you may have to seek out a new vaccination site. You can search a directory of sites at vaccines.gov.
The C.D.C. recommended the Pfizer-BioNTech booster for anyone 5 years old or older who received an initial vaccination or booster shot at least two months ago. People 6 years old or older can get the Moderna vaccine if it has been at least two months since their last vaccination.
Beyond the difference in age criteria, there is no practical difference between shots, said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. “From your body’s immune system perspective, it doesn’t remember which brand it is,” he said.
The new booster shot is a bivalent vaccine, meaning that it targets two versions of the coronavirus: the original strain, and the Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5. The previous booster shot targeted only the original version of the virus.
The new shots are now the only boosters authorized for people ages 5 and older. The F.D.A. no longer authorizes the previous booster doses for people in the approved age groups. People who have not received their first doses of the vaccine will still receive the original vaccines that were rolled out in late 2020.
The F.D.A. authorized the updated boosters for people who were at least two months out from their last shot (whether that was the original vaccine or a booster), but you might want to wait longer. An advisory panel to the C.D.C. voted to recommend the same interval between doses, although several members voiced concerns that two months was too short.
Doctors and immunologists said that in general, people should wait around four to six months after immunization or infection.
That’s because your body will probably not generate much of an immune response so soon after a previous encounter with the virus, Aubree Gordon, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, said. “Your immunity level is so high that you’ll just neutralize immediately the antigen that’s being produced — you kind of reach a ceiling,” she said. “You don’t have that much higher to go.”
Once you do get the booster, it typically takes around one to two weeks after you get the shot for your antibodies to “kick in,” Dr. Gordon said.
Kids 6 months through 5 years of age can receive the primary vaccination series of the Pfizer or Moderna shots, but the C.D.C. does not currently recommend boosters for this age group.
Yes. Booster shots are safe for pregnant people, Dr. Chin-Hong said, and just as with the previous vaccines, scientists expect that the antibodies a pregnant person generates could transfer to the newborn.
The previous booster shots provided robust protection against severe disease. There were, however, people who had breakthrough infections even shortly after receiving booster shots, including President Biden.
Doctors expect the newest iteration of boosters to offer more protection against breakthrough infections, but they won’t be bulletproof. “It’s not a game-changer,” Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, said. “But it is going to be better.”
There is not yet real-world data on how these bivalent vaccines perform in humans. Infectious disease experts compared the process of creating the new boosters to that of the annual flu shot, which is updated each year and primarily tested on animals, not humans.
“I’m not worried at all,” Dr. Chin-Hong said. “They’re not using any new ingredients. It’s like you’re still making brownies — you’re still using chocolate, sugar, flour. Maybe now you’re using more chocolate.”
It’s unclear whether this will be the last Covid booster offered, or whether there will be new boosters on a regular basis. The United States could offer the vaccine each year around the fall, similar to the flu vaccine, if the virus surges become predictable, Dr. Chin-Hong said.
But the pandemic’s trajectory has been anything but straightforward, and it’s hard to anticipate the state of the virus over the next few months, let alone the next few years. If the virus had not evolved, we probably would not need any new shots now, Dr. Crotty said, adding, “It’s really up to the virus.”