A panel of advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backed the broad use of new COVID-19 vaccines, as cases of the respiratory illness rise.
The advisers voted 13-1 to recommend the vaccines for people ages 6 months and older. While the benefits appear to be greatest for the oldest and youngest people, the benefits of vaccination exceed the risks for everyone, according to a CDC analysis.
The universal recommendation, as opposed to one that applies to selected groups, could ease the rollout of the vaccine and improve access and equity.
"Let's keep America strong, healthy," said Dr. Camille Kotton, a panel member who voted in favor of the recommendation and who is an infectious disease specialist at Harvard Medical School. "Let's do away with COVID-19 as best we can by prevention of disease through vaccines. Let's make things clear."
The Food and Drug Administration gave the go-ahead to vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech Monday. A new vaccine from Novavax is under FDA review and may be approved soon.
The new vaccines target a much more recent variant of the omicron strain called XBB.1.5 that was selected by the FDA in June for use in formulating new vaccines. The idea, akin to how flu vaccines are made, is to match a seasonal vaccine to the virus that is infecting people.
Since the FDA's decision, other variants have overtaken XBB.1.5, but laboratory data suggest the new vaccines should provide good protection against COVID-19, including serious illness, hospitalization and death. The new shots can bolster immunity from previous vaccinations and COVID illness.
Late Tuesday afternoon, the CDC accepted the recommendation of its advisers. "We have more tools than ever to prevent the worst outcomes from COVID-19," said CDC Director Mandy Cohen. "CDC is now recommending updated COVID-19 vaccination for everyone 6 months and older to better protect you and your loved ones."
The new shots could become available as soon as Wednesday in some parts of the country. They're not technically free anymore, but for most people insurance will pay for them. The federal government will make the shots available for the uninsured at no cost.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Everyone aged 6 months and older should get one of the new COVID-19 boosters. That is the recommendation today from independent advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC. CDC director Mandy Cohen quickly accepted the recommendation, marking the crucial last step necessary to make the new COVID shots available. And, in a crucial step towards understanding this development, let's bring in NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So you have been listening all day long, I'm told, to this CDC committee of doctors and scientists. They were debating who should get the new shots. What did you hear?
STEIN: You know, Mary Louise, some experts have argued that the only people who really need to get another shot are those who are most vulnerable to getting very sick from COVID, like, you know, older people and those who have other health problems, because most younger, healthy people are still well-protected by the immunity they've built up from all the shots and infections they've gotten at this point. And some of the CDC advisers agreed with that. But in the end, the committee voted overwhelmingly 13-1 to recommend the shots for everyone 6 months and older. Here's Dr. Camille Kotton from Harvard, who argued a simple, broad recommendation would avoid confusing messages that were discourage vaccination.
CAMILLE KOTTON: Let's keep America strong, healthy. Let's do away with COVID-19 as best we can by prevention of disease through vaccines. Let's make things clear.
KELLY: Rob, just remind us what these new vaccines are, how they work, how well they're going to work.
STEIN: Sure. They're reformulated versions of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. They were just cleared by the FDA yesterday. And a similar vaccine from Novavax may be coming soon, too. The new shots target a much more recent strain of omicron than the earlier iterations of the vaccines. Now, that strain's been replaced by more recent evolutions of omicron, but the new shots still look like they're a close enough match to boost people's fading immunity and cut the chances of getting COVID, spreading the virus and getting so sick they'll end up in the hospital, die or develop long COVID. These shots aren't like some kind of perfect, magic forcefield by any means, but the shots should help people fight COVID better.
KELLY: OK, I've got a bunch of news-you-can-use-type quick questions to get through. One...
KELLY: ...When are the shots going to be available?
STEIN: OK, so the new shots should start to become available as soon as tomorrow in some parts of the country. They're not technically free anymore, but for most people, their insurance will pay for them. And the federal government is making the shots available for the uninsured at no cost.
KELLY: Next, should we get the shots right away, or does it depend, like, when you last had COVID?
STEIN: Yeah. So that is a little complicated. It has to be at least two months since the last shot. But some experts say people should wait at least three months from either their last shot or their last infection. Others say four to six months would be better. But either way, lots of people, especially those at high risk, should really think about getting a shot pretty much right away.
KELLY: And I have heard some talk about waiting, trying to time the shots for when they're most needed. What's the advice on that?
STEIN: Yeah, yeah. I've heard that, too. The strategy is getting the most bang for the buck by waiting until a couple weeks before you're planning to do something that may be risky, like travel for work or visit family over the holidays. But some say waiting can be risky, too, especially since the numbers are all going up right now.
KELLY: Do we know how many people will get one of the new shots? What's the expectation?
STEIN: You know, that's hard to predict, but only 17% of those eligible for the last boosters got one. And only 43% of those ages 65 and older - those people who really need one - got one. So, you know, Mary Louise, it could be a hard sell this time around, too.
KELLY: And real quick, Rob, in addition to these COVID boosters - the flu shot. Should we get that, too, while we're at the pharmacy?
STEIN: Yeah, people should get the flu shot. And they can also get, for the first time, an RSV shot. And they can get them all together or space them out if they're worried about the side effects.
KELLY: NPR's Rob Stein. Thank you.
STEIN: You bet, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.