What to Know About the New COVID-19 Omicron Boosters
Our primary care doctors in Delray Beach understand that many people are a bit confused about the new COVID-19 booster shots, which include coverage for the omicron subvariants. So we want to answer some of your questions here.
Q. How is the new vaccine different?
A. The COVID-19 vaccines that have been in use since they were first rolled out in 2021 were all designed to target the original (ancestral) coronavirus strain.
Vaccine makers Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna developed new “bivalent” versions of their mRNA vaccines to specifically target both the original strain as well as the highly contagious BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants.
“This virus has been mutating so quickly over the past two years,” Judith Guzman-Cottrill, an infectious disease specialist at Oregon Health & Science University, told NPR.
“I feel like we’ve been playing catch up and finally we have caught up,” she said.
Q. Are they safe?
A. Although they haven’t undergone clinical trials, tests in mice have shown the new bivalent vaccines produce a good immune system response to omicron’s BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants.
And experts say there’s no need to test their safety because the basic shot is the same as the original—it’s merely been adjusted to include the spike protein of the subvariants.
The University of Colorado’s infectious disease and COVID-19 expert Dr. Michelle Barron compared the new boosters to the flu shot, which is updated every fall as vaccine makers predict which strains of the flu will be circulating, and change the “recipe” to match. But the vaccine itself is not entirely new, she explained.
“We don’t test the flu shot each year. We just change it slightly,” Barron said.
“This new COVID-19 booster just tweaks the formula. The technology is the same. The safety of the vaccines will be exactly the same because it’s not a new vaccine,” she explained.
Q. Who can get the new booster?
A. The Pfizer vaccine is authorized for anyone ages 12 and older; the Moderna vaccine is authorized for adults 18 and older.
Like the previous coronavirus vaccines, the new boosters are free to the public. They will be available to anyone who has already had their primary vaccine series from any U.S.-approved company (Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, or Novavax) regardless of how many boosters they’ve already received.
Public health officials recommend that those who are pregnant or have been pregnant recently should also get the updated boosters because they are at a slightly increased risk of more severe illness and death from COVID-19.
Q. Who can’t get the booster?
A. Those who haven’t already received a primary series of vaccines from one of the four approved manufacturers cannot receive the new bivalent booster vaccine for two reasons.
First, the dosage is lower because the new omicron booster is designed to “boost” or enhance already existing antibodies.
Second, studies haven’t yet been done to see whether the lower dosage is enough to provide adequate protection from COVID-19 if you don’t already have the higher level of protection from the first series.
In addition, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set a minimum waiting period of two months for anyone who recently received a booster of the previous vaccines. However, advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend waiting longer: at least three months for those at high risk, or as long as six months for everyone else.
The agencies also recommend that anyone who has recently recovered from a COVID-19 infection wait at least three months to be vaccinated, in order to help boost the effects of the vaccine.
The new boosters are not approved for children under age 12.
Q. Do I need an omicron booster?
A. Because the new subvariants are even more transmissible than the original strains, including delta and omicron, officials recommend that everyone who is eligible receive the new omicron booster.
Certain people who are at the highest risk for severe disease and hospitalization with COVID-19 should receive the booster as soon as possible, according to public health experts.
“I would recommend this booster shot for those who are immunocompromised or those who are 60 years [old] and above,” Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, told NPR.
Q. Can I get other vaccines at the same time?
A. Yes, you should get a flu shot at the same time (they are given one in each arm), because the southern hemisphere nations that have their flu seasons ahead of ours saw a spike in flu cases this year, so experts are predicting a more severe season here.
Dr. William Schaffner, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told CNN that some people have asked him whether the COVID-19 vaccine protects against flu or vice versa.
“You do have to get both vaccines,” he said. “The COVID vaccine will not protect against the flu. The flu vaccine will not protect against COVID.”
As for the Jynneos monkeypox vaccine, the CDC suggests that adolescent and young adult men consider waiting four weeks after receiving the monkeypox vaccine before receiving a Moderna, Novavax, or Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, because of the risk of inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) or inflammation of the tissue surrounding the heart (pericarditis).
However, the agency adds that the monkeypox vaccination “should not be delayed” due to recently receiving a coronavirus vaccine.