Briefing

The next round of COVID-19 booster shots, explained

Omicron-specific vaccines are on the way

The Biden administration's fall booster campaign just got the jolt it was waiting for. Here's everything you need to know:

The latest:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday authorized reformulated, Omicron-specific COVID-19 boosters from both Pfizer and Moderna, delivering a long-awaited update to the White House's latest vaccination push. The new shots, which target both the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, as well as the original virus that circulated back in 2020, received the go-ahead from the Food and Drug Administration the day prior. The updated doses should be available as soon as this weekend, though expect supplies to be limited until after Labor Day.

The reformulated Pfizer and Moderna shots were cleared for ages 12 and up and ages 18 and up, respectively. Those interested in the new booster must wait until at least two months following their most recent shot, whether it was the second of a primary vaccination series or a third or fourth dose.

"We have constantly been behind this virus, and we had to think creatively about how to safely catch up," FDA vaccine official Peter Marks told The Washington Post. "If we are going to intervene, the time is ripe to do it now." 

"If you are eligible, there is no bad time to get your Covid-19 booster and I strongly encourage you to receive it," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky added in a Thursday statement.

This is the first time the vaccines have been modified since their debut in late 2020, notes the Post.

What's up with this fall booster campaign?

With the threat of a fall/winter surge approaching, health officials are eager to get updated, more targeted shots into arms. "We have really got to do better to protect the American public," Infectious Diseases Chief Dr. Anthony Fauci told The New York Times in a recent interview. "We are in the middle of a BA.5 outbreak here, and we are nowhere near where we want to be."

The government booster campaign, launching in September, will provide states, pharmacies, and other vaccination sites with 175 million updated doses, per The Wall Street Journal. Though supplies will ship now, officials must hold off on administration until approval is handed down from the CDC. Vaccination sites will offer both the primary vaccination series, as well as the updated booster. Only fully-vaccinated individuals are eligible for the new boosters, which are expected to replace the already-existing jabs.

According to the healthcare philanthropy the Commonwealth Fund, "a fall vaccination campaign that reaches the number of people who got flu shots last year would save about 100,000 lives and prevent more than one million hospitalizations," the Journal summarizes.

Are there any anticipated roadblocks with these new shots?

U.S. booster uptake has been notoriously slow going — and there's just no guarantee that will change simply because there's a new, bivalent shot. The FDA also authorized the new jabs without data from human trials, in hopes of hastening the process and keeping up with an ever-changing virus … but some fear that might fuel public skepticism. "With a very skittish public that has voted with its feet about taking boosters, if we could add layers of reassurance that [the shot] has gone into humans for some level of studies, that would help," Baylor College of Medicine Professor Peter Hotez told The Washington Post.

So wait … should I be worried?

Director of the FDA's Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research Peter Marks on Wednesday assured the public that the agency has taken "a great deal of care" to ensure the updated boosters "meet our rigorous safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality standards," despite being authorized for emergency use ahead of human trials (which are being conducted right now). And if it's any further consolation, annual flu vaccines undergo a very similar testing process, CNN reports.

"We have been planning for and gathering input on our approach to updated boosters since earlier this year," added FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf. "The FDA has extensive experience with evaluating strain changes for influenza vaccines and is confident in the data supporting these latest booster authorizations."

What's the state of COVID right now?

At the moment, "close to 450 Americans are dying every day from the virus, and there's concern the numbers could rise as people move indoors," The Hill reported Sunday. Though the pandemic's darkest days appear to have passed, "epidemiologists are predicting roughly 100,000 to 165,000 additional COVID deaths by the spring," the Times adds.

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