KING COUNTY, Wash. - The U.S. 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 Food and Drug Administration tweaks the recipe of shots made by Pfizer and rival Moderna that already have saved millions of lives. The hope is that the modified boosters will blunt yet another winter surge — and help tamp down the BA.5 omicron relative that continues to spread widely.
"These updated boosters present us with an opportunity to get ahead" of the next COVID-19 wave, said FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf.
Until now, COVID-19 vaccines have targeted the original coronavirus strain, even as wildly different mutants emerged. The new U.S. boosters are combination, or "bivalent," shots. They contain half that original vaccine recipe and half protection against the newest omicron versions, BA.4 and BA.5, that are considered the most contagious yet.
The combination aims to increase cross-protection against multiple variants.
"It really provides the broadest opportunity for protection," Pfizer vaccine chief Annaliesa Anderson told The Associated Press.
The updated boosters are only for people who have already had their primary vaccinations, using the original vaccines. Doses made by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech are for anyone 12 and older while Moderna’s updated shots are for adults — if it has been at least two months since their last primary vaccination or their latest booster. They’re not to be used for initial vaccinations.
There’s one more step before a fall booster campaign begins: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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.
Public Health Seattle-King County released what local health officials know about the new boosters for our region:
Who is eligible for the updated boosters?
The vaccines are for people 12 years and older (but we are waiting to confirm who will be eligible).
Both Pfizer and Moderna have produced updated booster vaccines. Pfizer’s updated booster vaccine is for people 12 years and older. Moderna’s is for people 18 years and older. However, it’s possible that in the review process, the expert panels or the CDC could decide that the new boosters should be prioritized for a specific age group or using some other criteria. We won’t know until these expert groups deliberate.
When will the new shots be available?
The applications will be reviewed by the CDC’s independent expert panel on September 1, and if they recommend the vaccines, then the CDC will make the final determinations regarding the use of these boosters. In addition, an independent panel from the Western states will do a review. It could take a few more days for CDC recommendations and guidance to be ready. If the CDC recommends the vaccines, doses will start to ship to the states after Labor Day.
The very earliest we could expect to have the new booster doses available at our vaccination sites at the Auburn Outlet Collection Mall would be the weekend of September 9th. However, delays in shipping are possible, so it could be later. Vaccination providers will also need time to update their processes according to new CDC guidance for the booster, so vaccination sites may vary in when they are able to start offering the new booster.
Where can I get the new boosters?
Public Health vaccination site at the Auburn Outlet Collection Mall will have both the Pfizer and the Moderna updated boosters once they have finished the approval process. Other healthcare providers have also ordered new boosters and will offer them to non-members (though some may only offer them to members in the first week or two), including Kaiser Permanente, UWMedicine, HealthPoint, SeaMar, Snoqualmie Valley Hospital, and ICHS. Pharmacies may also have the updated booster but check before going about availability. Find more information about locations at kingcounty.gov/vaccine.
How is the new booster different from previous COVID vaccines?
The new booster vaccines have the same basic ingredients as the current vaccine, but with an updated spike protein.
The updated COVID booster works like the annual flu shot. In the same way that the flu shot targets the expected flu strains for each upcoming season, this new COVID booster shot will specifically target the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants that are spreading widely. It will also target the original strain of COVID-19 that is in the current COVID-19 vaccine. It’s called a "bi-valent" vaccine, which means that it targets two strains of a virus.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.