The new COVID-19 booster shots now available are just the start of annual vaccinations to protect Americans against a virus that isn’t going away.
That’s the message from the White House as the updated booster doses are rolling out nationwide to doctors offices, pharmacies and public health agencies. The shots are the first to be targeted at COVID-19 variants, the omicron strains known as BA.4 and BA.5 that are dominating cases in the U.S. and around the world.
“The pandemic isn’t over. And we will remain vigilant, and of course, we continue to look for and prepare for unforeseen twists and turns,” Dr. Ashish Jha, head of the White House COVID-19 Response Team, told reporters during an update on the virus Tuesday.
But, Jha stressed, “this week marks an important shift in our fight against the virus. It marks our ability to make COVID vaccines a more routine part of our lives as we continue to drive down serious illness and deaths and protect Americans heading into the fall and winter.”
Federal authorities signed off last week on the updated booster shots from Pfizer and Moderna for teens and adults at least two months after completing the initial vaccine series — that’s both doses of Pfizer or Moderna, or the recently approved Novavax vaccines, or the single dose of Johnson & Johnson — or receiving a booster shot.
Pfizer’s updated booster shots are authorized for those 12 and older, and Moderna’s for 18 and older.
Anyone eligible for the updated shots can no longer get an original booster dose. But the original booster shots remain available to anyone 5 and older who doesn’t yet qualify for an updated dose, and COVID-19 vaccines can be administered to infants as young as 6 months old.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, compared COVID-19 boosters to getting an annual flu shot, a scenario long suggested by scientists as evidence mounted that the coronavirus responsible for a pandemic now into its third year wasn’t going to be eradicated.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that, looking forward with the COVID-19 pandemic, 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,” Fauci said.
That means “annual, updated COVID-19 shots matched to the currently circulating strains for most of the population,” he said. Fauci, who recently recovered from a rebound case of the virus, added that some “particularly vulnerable groups” may need more frequent vaccinations.
The updated booster can be given at the same time as a flu shot, just like other COVID-19 vaccines, Lori Abeyta, an Intermountain Healthcare clinical specialist, said recently, calling the update to the COVID-19 booster shots “very similar” to changes made to annual flu shots to reflect what strains are circulating.
Fauci said the vaccines are safe, citing clinical trials where more than 1,700 people received the bivalent vaccines “with no additional safety concerns.” Approval by the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention came before human trials were completed.
But he acknowledged that the initial “remarkable 94 to 95 efficacy against symptomatic disease” shown in 2020 trials of the vaccine hasn’t held up.
“We later learned through real-world evidence that vaccine protection, particularly against infection, wanes over time but that additional doses enhance protection particularly against severe disease leading to hospitalization or death,” Fauci said.
Still, he said data from Pfizer and Moderna suggests the updated booster shots induce higher antibody concentrations against omicron and other variants than the original vaccines did, and “even higher levels of neutralizing antibodies in individuals who have recovered” from the virus.
“So we fully expect that the updated bivalent vaccines containing BA.4 and BA.5 sequences will offer better protection against currently circulating strains than the original vaccines,” Fauci said, “although it is difficult to predict at this point how much better that protection will be.”
Staying up to date on COVID-19 vaccinations “is critical to maintaining optimal protection against severe COVID-19, particularly for the elderly,” he said, advising Americans to get the updated booster shot “as soon as you are eligible in order to protect yourself, your family, and your community against COVID-19 this fall and winter.”
Fauci, who announced he’ll step down from more than a half-century of government service at the end of the year, said he “certainly will do so.”