The New COVID Booster Shot Could Save Your Life; Get One Now, FDA Expert Says

The New COVID Booster Shot Could Save Your Life; Get One Now, FDA Expert Says

As the weather gets colder and people spend more time indoors COVID is again not-so–gently rapping at their door.

COVID cases in the U.S. are fairly flat at about 38,000 cases a day right now, but a slew of new Omicron subvariants could drive another fall or winter surge, experts say. The best way to protect yourself from COVID is to purchase a new bivalent booster shot HTML1. The boosters are designed to target both the original SARS-CoV-2 strain, which causes COVID, and the Omicron BA.4/BA.5 subvariants. Scientists expect them also to offer broad protection against newer variants.

Immunity to previous infection or vaccination decreases over time. People over 65 and those with chronic conditions are more at risk for severe disease. Yet fewer than 10 percent of people in the U.S. who are eligible for the new boosters have gotten them.

Scientific American spoke with Hilary Marston, chief medical officer for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, about why booster uptake has been so abysmal, what we know about how effective the shots are and why it’s still so important to get one.

[ An edited transcript of the interview is available . ]

Why are boosters so important and who can get one?

As the weather gets colder and people are more indoors, it is obvious that booster shots are vital. And we have–thankfully–access to these safe and effective vaccines that are honed to target updated strains. This is a great blessing. I encourage everyone to take advantage of it. The updated Pfizer vaccine is now available to all children five years old and older. The Moderna vaccine is also available for those six years old and older. There are some caveats to this. Number one, if you have had a booster with the original strain (or the ancestral strain as we call them), we recommend you wait two months before you get the new booster shot. It is recommended that you wait three months for people who have had an infection.

Why do you recommend that we wait?

This is done to ensure you get the best immune response possible from these vaccines. You might not get the best immune response from these vaccines if they are too close together. However, any safety concerns that may exist could be magnified if they are placed closer together. These vaccines are extremely safe. We’re just talking about tweaking the edges. Waiting for those two to three months is the best way to optimize all those factors.

As of last week, only 5% of Americans who are eligible had received their booster shots. Comment on this?

Would you like to see higher numbers? Absolutely. I believe any health care worker and anyone who has been following the pandemic closely would agree. As a health worker, I feel for those in the emergency rooms at the front lines. They will be there to help you if you get sick, but it is a great strain. It is frustrating because we have the tools we need, and we have more than we could ever have hoped for at this point in the pandemic. It is frustrating to see boosters not getting in on the action.

Children under five have been eligible for the vaccine since mid-June, but fewer than 5 percent have been fully vaccinated. Why is this? What would you say to parents who aren’t vaccinating their child?

I believe the reason is multifactorial. Everyone makes decisions for their children. It’s based at least partially on the misperception that COVID in children is not something to worry about. This is something I want to tackle head-on. There’s no question here that the people who are getting very sick from COVID-19–and we’re still seeing more than 300 deaths on a rolling basis in this country every day–those folks are largely the elderly unvaccinated with comorbidities. However, this does not mean that children are safe.

There is, for instance, a greater risk of death and hospitalization than with influenza. Many people rush to get their children vaccinated against flu. Parents should consider it an obligation, just like they would protect their children against flu. These vaccines were available to us in this country, which was a blessing.

There’s the infection, but there’s also the possibility of long-term consequences if you get infected. We are trying to understand the risks of long COVID better, even though it is rare. If large numbers of people are infected, then long COVID will affect many children. These are the things I encourage parents to consider when deciding whether to get their children vaccinated.

The risk of severe COVID increases as you get older. Do you think that people over 65, people with comorbidities or people who are immunocompromised should race to get a booster shot?

Absolutely. This is the best way to protect yourself from this virus. These vaccines are readily available. These vaccines are widely available. People should take advantage of them. These populations are at greater risk. We continue to see that the majority of people who are hospitalized or who die from COVID are either not vaccinated or have not had their boosters. I strongly recommend that you visit Covidvaccine.gov to find a local place to get your vaccine.

Do we have any data on the actual effectiveness of the bivalent booster updated?

The FDA authorization was based upon immunogenicity data, which is the ability to produce an immune response. We will be looking for data as soon as they become available for the current circulating strains. We will be publishing that information. This is a great time to get your vaccines. We are about a month away from Thanksgiving. It’s a great time to get your vaccine updated so it has maximum effect when you gather with your family around the table.

We already have several new versions in circulation. We do not know if the vaccine works against them.

Data are emerging. The data are evolving over time, as was the case with all previous variants. It’s something we are looking into. We are confident that the updated vaccines will put us in a better position than if we had to rely on old strains of virus. We will continue to monitor the exact amount of immune evasion. But the most important thing is how well vaccines protect against severe disease. They can only do this if they are administered to the right people.

Is there a message that isn’t getting out there that people need to hear?

I believe that everyone should get their COVID vaccination and get their flu shot. One of my best clinical instructors was the one who advised people to get their flu shot at the same time as Halloween candy. We are definitely in that season. It is a good idea to protect yourself against flu every year. Based on the events in the southern hemisphere this season, there is potential for a bad flu season. Please, please, do this. Also, get your COVID vaccination. It’s easy for Americans to get both vaccines. All local pharmacies have them. So don’t hesitate to do it.

The vaccination program has been focused on health equity and trying to ensure that everyone has access to vaccines and is using them. And something else we’re going to continue to emphasize is, for vulnerable populations, ensure that you have a treatment plan in case you do get infected–particularly for folks who are immunocompromised. Talk to your doctor and ensure that you have a treatment plan in place in case the home test proves positive.

Early in the pandemic, Black and Latino populations had less access to COVID vaccines and were vaccinated at lower rates. This has changed now. The white population, who is more skeptical about vaccines, is now less vaccinated. Could you comment on this?

I believe access was the first problem we had to solve. Scarcity is the biggest barrier to access. We are not in this situation anymore, thankfully. Combating misinformation is the next obstacle. That’s why we’re here today – making sure people have the best information possible to make informed decisions to protect their loved ones.

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    Tanya Lewis is a sen

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