Coming Soon to Americans' Arms: a New Bivalent Booster

This one also targets omicron versions BA.4 and BA.5
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 31, 2022 10:15 AM CDT
FDA Gives Its OK to a New Bivalent COVID Booster
This photo taken this month and provided by Pfizer shows vials of the company's updated COVID-19 vaccine during production in Kalamazoo, Mich.   (Pfizer via AP)

(Newser) – The US on Wednesday authorized its first update to COVID-19 vaccines, booster doses that target today's most common omicron strain. Shots could begin within days. The move by the FDA tweaks the recipe of shots made by Pfizer and rival Moderna. Until now, COVID-19 vaccines have targeted the original coronavirus strain, even as wildly different mutants emerged. The new US boosters are combination, or "bivalent," shots. They contain half that original vaccine recipe and half protection against the newest omicron versions, called BA.4 and BA.5, which are considered the most contagious yet.

The hope is that the modified boosters will blunt yet another winter surge. "You'll see me at the front of the line," FDA vaccine chief Dr. Peter Marks told the AP shortly before his agency cleared the new doses. The updated boosters are only for people who've already had their primary vaccinations, using the original vaccines. The final step before a fall booster campaign begins: The CDC must recommend who should get the additional shot. An influential CDC advisory panel will debate the evidence Thursday—including whether people at high risk from COVID-19 should go first.

But one big question remains: whether people weary of vaccinations will roll up their sleeves again. Just half of vaccinated Americans got the first recommended booster dose, and only a third of those 50 and older who were urged to get a second booster did so. And here's the rub: It's not clear just how much more benefit an updated booster will bring beyond a temporary jump in antibodies capable of fending off an omicron infection. One reason: The FDA cleared the modifications ahead of studies in people, a step toward eventually handling COVID-19 vaccine updates more like yearly flu shots.

That's the direction one immunologist thinks things need to go. It’s time for US authorities to better explain that the public should expect an updated COVID-19 vaccination every so often, just like getting a fall flu shot or a tetanus booster after stepping on a rusty nail, said University of Pennsylvania immunologist E. John Wherry. "We need to rebrand it in a societally normal-looking way," rather than a panicked response to new mutants, Wherry said. "Give a clear, forward-looking set of expectations." (Read more COVID-19 stories.)

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