Doctors welcomed the federal government’s announcement Friday that a COVID-19 booster shot designed to be more effective against the omicron variant will be ready by early fall, but some Long Islanders are skeptical the new shots will make any difference.
The Department of Health and Human Services said the government will buy 66 million doses of Moderna’s “bivalent” booster, which targets the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron subvariants that are now dominant, as well as an early coronavirus strain. That’s in addition to 105 million Pfizer bivalent booster doses the government previously purchased. Clinical trials show the boosters are more effective against omicron, the companies said.
The government expects to receive the first deliveries of the boosters in the early fall, according to Health and Human Services.
The current vaccine and boosters were designed to fight an early strain of the virus. But the virus has mutated so much since then that the vaccine has become less effective at preventing infection, although it still provides strong protection against severe disease or death, especially for those with one or two booster shots, data shows.
WHAT TO KNOW
- The federal government announced Friday new “bivalent” vaccines that studies show are more effective against omicron and its subvariants may be ready for distribution by early fall.
- Experts say the new vaccine likely will make infection with the coronavirus less likely and increase protection against severe illness and death in those with less-robust immune systems.
- Doctors say if you’re high-risk and are eligible for a first or second booster, you should get one now rather than wait for the new booster. Low-risk people probably can wait for the new booster.
“The further you get from the original strain, the less specific the antibody match is to the virus,” said Dr. Sharon Nachman, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Medicine.
The new bivalent booster “will absolutely reduce the risk of infection more, and for those who are getting COVID and have comorbidities and end up getting sick, it will reset the clock and prevent them from getting sicker,” she said.
Don Leider, 71, of Long Beach, is looking forward to getting the new booster.
“If there’s something more preventive regarding the variants, I’m taking it,” he said. “The variants change the whole game. It’s really like a new disease.”
Carolyn O’Neill, 63, of Freeport, who has received two boosters, said that “more than likely I will take it.”
But, she asked, “Going down the line will there be another one, better than this one? The way scientists are working, the way things are quickly being developed, it may just take a few months and there will be something better than this. So I’d rather wait and see.”
Scientists are trying to develop a vaccine to more effectively combat all current and future variants, but it’s unclear when or if that will be ready.
Jeffrey Hardy, 51, of Uniondale, is vaccinated, but he didn’t get a booster. He is skeptical the new booster will be more effective against omicron.
“I’m just over vaccinations,” he said. “President [Joe] Biden was vaccinated and got boosted twice and still got COVID.”
Nachman said there’s no vaccine that will prevent all infections.
But even current boosters are very good at preventing serious illness, including in those who are most vulnerable, such as the 79-year-old president, she said.
“Look at how quickly at his age he bounced back,” she said. “Was he in the hospital? No. Was he that sick? No. You saw him talking and doing work while he was sick. Think of how well that vaccine worked.”
A person 50 and older with two booster shots is 29 times less likely to die of COVID-19 than an unvaccinated person — and four times less likely to die than someone that age with only one booster, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows.
Even so, uptake of the current boosters has been tepid. Less than half of those eligible for a first booster have received one, and only 31% of those ages 50 and older eligible for a second booster have gotten one.
It's unclear who will be eligible for the new booster and when. People 50 and over or those 12 and over with moderately or severely compromised immune systems are eligible for the second booster.
Dr. Aaron Glatt, chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital in Oceanside, said high-risk people who haven’t gotten booster shots should not wait for the omicron-targeted booster.
“If somebody's in the highest risk groups, and they haven't been vaccinated with the booster shot yet, absolutely get it now,” he said. “If it's been a long time since they’ve been vaccinated with their first booster, and they are in a very high risk group, get a booster.”
There likely will be a four-month waiting period between the second booster and the new one, because getting shots too close together has little or no effect, he said.
Dr. Matthew Harris, medical director of Northwell Health’s vaccine program, recommended talking with your doctor if it’s unclear whether you should wait.
“Some things are going to be clear cut,” he said. “If you're on chemotherapy, you should be boosted. But if you're a 51-year-old marathon runner, and you've gotten your first set of vaccines and your [first] booster, and you want to wait until the fall, that's probably perfectly reasonable.”