New COVID-19 booster shots — specially formulated to fight multiple omicron variants — are available now for children and adults ages 12 and over.
The director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Rochelle Walensky, and a CDC panel of vaccine experts endorsed the new booster shots on Sept. 1. Now, as many as 200 million Americans could get the new booster shots this fall. Doctors also hope people will get their annual flu shots at the same time to prevent spikes in both flu and COVID-19 cases this fall and winter.
“The updated COVID-19 boosters are formulated to better protect against the most recently circulating COVID-19 variant,” Walensky said in a statement. “They can help restore protection that has waned since previous vaccination and were designed to provide broader protection against newer variants. This recommendation followed a comprehensive scientific evaluation and robust scientific discussion. If you are eligible, there is no bad time to get your COVID-19 booster and I strongly encourage you to receive it.”
It’s safe to get your flu and COVID-19 vaccines at the same time. Learn more about a possible early, rough flu season.
The new COVID-19 booster shots are known as “bivalent,” meaning they protect against both the original virus that causes COVID-19 and the newest BA.4 and BA.5 variants, which are causing nearly all COVID-19 infections in the U.S. now.
The CDC approval of the newly formulated booster shots follows earlier approval by experts at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Medical experts at both the CDC and FDA plan to review possible booster doses for children under age 12 in the coming weeks.
We consulted with UCHealth infectious disease and COVID-19 experts, Dr. Michelle Barron and Dr. Thomas Campbell, to answer your questions about the newest COVID-19 booster shots and to learn more about who can get them.
Campbell ran clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccines at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus. He is also a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
Barron is one of the top infectious disease experts in Colorado. She’s the senior medical director of infection prevention and control for UCHealth and is also a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the CU School of Medicine.
Why should eligible people strongly consider getting a new booster shots this fall?
“COVID-19 is not going away. It’s here to stay,” Barron said. “For many people, it’s been over nine months — or potentially even longer — since they got their last COVID shot. Their bodies are less prepared to fight an infection. A new booster shot will keep you from getting extremely sick.
“If you don’t like being sick, then I would do everything possible to stay well. That means you should get your COVID-19 and flu shots and every other vaccine that you should get, but might have been putting off,” Barron said.
“We are so lucky to have these vaccines,” she said.
Why did we need new omicron-specific COVID-19 booster shots?
“The original vaccines were highly effective in preventing hospitalization and death from COVID-19. They were particularly effective in people who have received the recommended boosters,” Campbell said.
But it’s normal for viruses to change and for variants to develop, Campbell said.
In the case of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, multiple omicron variants have spread and become dominant throughout 2022. They include omicron variants known as BA.2, BA.4 and BA.5.
The original vaccines and boosters did not specifically fight these omicron variants because they hadn’t developed yet. The proliferation of omicron variants has prompted the primary vaccine makers who are supplying COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. — Pfizer and Moderna — to create new, tailored versions of their booster shots that can better combat omicron variants. Federal health authorities approved the newly formulated vaccines on Sept. 1 and they will be available throughout the U.S. starting this month.
Some health experts have discussed the possibility of a combined vaccine protecting against both flu and COVID-19. Are we getting combined flu and COVID-19 vaccines now?
No. Not yet, Campbell said.
While it’s possible that we’ll be able to get combined flu and COVID-19 vaccines in the future, for now, vaccine makers and health experts have not yet created a new double-duty flu/COVID-19 vaccine.
Can I get my annual flu shot at the same time that I get my new COVID-19 booster shot?
Yes. Flu shots are also available now. It’s safe to get both your flu and COVID-19 vaccine at the same time. Medical providers want to make it easy and convenient for people to get both vaccines at the same time so they’ll be better protected against what could be an early, rough flu season and to prevent fall and winter COVID-19 spikes. (Read more about why you may want to get your flu shot early this year.)
Who is eligible to get the new new omicron-specific COVID-19 booster shots?
Federal vaccine experts approved the new versions of the COVID-19 booster shots for children and adults, ages 12 and older. The Pfizer booster is approved for those ages 12 and up, while the Moderna shot is authorized for adults ages 18 and older.
What is the right timing to get a new COVID-19 booster shot?
Health experts are recommending the new COVID-19 booster shot for eligible children and adults who received their previous vaccine dose at least two months ago. While some people will want to wait four to six months after receiving their previous COVID-19 booster dose, medical experts wanted to give people as much freedom as possible to get a new vaccine dose when it works best for them.
Are the newly formulated COVID-19 booster shots safe? I’m hearing some people say that they haven’t been fully studied in people yet?
Yes. Vaccine experts at both the FDA and the CDC have determined that the new booster shots are safe. The new boosters are not an entirely new vaccine. Rather, the vaccine makers have changed the recipe.
Barron strongly recommends the newest COVID-19 booster shot.
“We know the vaccine is safe, and we know it works,” Barron said.
The original Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines both have been fully studied in people and more than 600 million doses have safely been given in the U.S., along with millions of other doses around the world.
The vaccine makers are now doing studies with the newly formulated “recipes” that include specific protections against the BA.4 and BA.5 COVID-19 variants. While those studies are not complete yet, medical experts do not expect to see any new safety concerns because the new formulations are not entirely new vaccines. The benefit of people getting boosters before a potential fall and winter spike dramatically outweighed waiting until the newest studies are complete, vaccine experts said. They hope to reduce COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations and to drive down the high cost of illnesses.
The new formulations are like flu shots, Barron said. We get a new version of the flu shot each year. Vaccine makers guess what strains of the flu will be spreading and create a new recipe. But the vaccine itself is not entirely new.
“We don’t test the flu shot each year. We just change it slighly. 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 said.
Barron’s advice for anyone who is skeptical is very simple.
“Go get it,” she advised.
If I have never gotten vaccinated, should I get the omicron-specific COVID-19 booster dose or the regular vaccines now?
Children and adults who have never received their first does of COVID-19 vaccines, which are also called their “primary series” vaccines, will start by getting two doses of the original COVID-19 vaccines, then they will get the new omicron-specific vaccine later.
“I would strongly advise people who are not vaccinated at all to complete the primary series of two shots (with the original vaccine),” Campbell said.
Barron added that the protocol is similar with other vaccines. For instance, children who are getting their initial flu shots start with two doses.
She compares the initial, “original receipe” COVID-19 vaccine doses to basic training in the military.
“You start with the primary series. That’s like boot camp for your body. Then later, you get the new bivalent booster shot. The second round is like special training to be a Navy SEAL,” Barron said.
Remind me again. Who should get COVID-19 booster shots, and what is the correct timing?
Adults who are ages 50 and older should get two booster doses. That’s also true for younger people who are immunocompromised or are especially vulnerable to getting severely ill with COVID-19.
Everyone ages 5 and older should get a booster dose after completing their primary series.
Babies and toddlers are now eligible for their first vaccine doses and are not yet getting booster shots.
It can be confusing to figure out who is eligible for booster shots and what the proper timing is. If you need help sorting out your specific situation and deciding when to get a booster shot, you can stay up to date with health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Why is COVID-19 spreading so widely?
There are three main reasons.
First, the newest omicron variants spread much more easily than previous versions, Campbell said.
Second, many people are not fully vaccinated.
“In the United States, only a small portion of the population has received one booster, and an even smaller portion of the population has received two boosters,” he said.
If more people can get fully vaccinated and boosted, the spread of the current variants may decrease.
And third, antibodies from vaccines, booster shots or a COVID-19 infection decrease over time, making it easier for people to get infected for the first time or to get the illness again.
“With the omicron variant, after the first booster dose, the protection starts to really drop off by about six months,” Campbell said.
Researchers do not know yet how long the immunity after a second booster dose lasts.
What if I’ve had COVID-19 recently? Should I wait to get my COVID-19 booster dose?
Yes. Research is showing that most people who have had a recent case of COVID-19 should have high antibody levels for about three months. So, they can wait 90 days after a COVID-19 infection to get their next booster dose.
“If you’ve just had COVID, there’s no rush to go out and get the booster. You can safely delay getting it for at least three months,” Campbell said.
When will the newly formulated omicron COVID booster shots be available?
Medical providers expect to have the new booster doses available in early September.
How are vaccine makers able to create new versions of the vaccines relatively quickly?
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are a newer type of vaccine, known as mRNA vaccines. It’s faster to create and change these types of vaccines, which is why the vaccine makers can incorporate new protection against omicron variants.
“It’s encouraging that we’ll have these newer versions of the boosters,” Campbell said.
He credits good science and attentive researchers.
“They have paid very close attention to what the virus is doing,” he said. “And one of the advantages of the mRNA technology is that it can be changed fairly quickly to reflect what the virus is doing.”
How do experts know which variants will be dominant in the future?
They do not, Campbell said.
It’s important to know that researchers and vaccines makers must do the best they can to predict which vaccines will be spreading. No vaccine can be a perfect match for the future spread of a virus.
“Under the best case scenario, the best technology is still three months behind,” Campbell said.
Even so, people around the world are lucky that vaccine development is moving much more rapidly than it did in the past. And, it makes sense to have COVID-19 vaccines that protect people from a broad range of variants, not just omicron-specific vaccines, Campbell said.
How do you think the pandemic will continue to evolve? Do you expect COVID-19 infections to increase this fall and winter as they have over the last two years?
The virus that causes COVID-19 is here to stay, Campbell said.
“It’s important to plan for another wave in the fall and winter because there’s a good probability that it will happen,” Campbell said.
“Both vaccine-induced immunity and immunity from natural infection wane over time. We have a virus that’s still here along with waning immunity. And human behavior changes in the fall,” Campbell said. “Kids will go back to school. The weather will be colder. The daylight hours will be shorter, so people will be indoors more and having more contact with other people. Then, we’ll have Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years and travel associated with the holidays.”
All of those patterns point to the continued spread of COVID-19, he said.
“We have all the ingredients necessary to create a new wave,” Campbell said.
So, he encourages everyone to pay attention to FDA and CDC guidance and to stay up to date on vaccines and boosters.
“These recommendations are based on evolving information that comes from good science,” Campbell said.
“Get your booster per the authorization, whether it’s for everybody or people ages 50 and older. Once it’s authorized, get boosters sooner rather than later so your immunity levels are high by November and December, when all of the conditions for a fall spike are likely to converge.”