Americans will now have access to updated COVID booster shots after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off on reformulated versions of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines Thursday night.
Some doses could be available as soon as Friday, with a wider rollout planned for next week. Health officials expect another surge of infections this fall and winter, and say the shots — which target the original coronavirus strain as well as the more contagious omicron variant — will help boost peoples' waning immunity and protect against serious disease and death.
What should you keep in mind if you're ready to roll up your sleeve? CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky spoke with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep about the new boosters.
"Doses are rolling into pharmacies and other sites now, and I would say if you're eligible for your boost there is no bad time to go out and get one," Walensky says.
There are eligibility and timing considerations
Adults 18 years or older can get the Moderna booster, while the Pfizer-BioNTech version has been authorized for people 12 and up. In both cases, a person is only eligible for a booster if it has been at least two months since their last COVID vaccine.
Some vaccine experts say that it would be better for people to wait until four months after their last COVID shot or infection for maximum efficacy, though Walensky suggests there is some gray area.
"What we've seen is that almost everybody who is eligible for a boost is far more beyond two months from their last shot," she says. "Certainly we wouldn't want somebody to get a boost too soon, and we wouldn't want you to get a boost before two months. But I would say if you're three, four, five months after your last shot, now is the time to go ahead and get it."
Safety and efficacy data look promising
These new boosters were tested on mice rather than people, a controversial strategy aimed at saving time (it's not unprecedented, however, as flu shots are changed each year without being routinely tested).
Looking at the data, Walensky says health authorities are confident about how well the vaccines will work and how safe they will be.
That data includes the 600 million doses of the original vaccine that have been administered across the country with what Walensky calls "an extraordinary safety record." Officials also saw similar safety results for an earlier version of this bivalent vaccine (meaning it targets two strains) that was tested in some 1,400 people.
That booster targeted the original coronavirus strain as well as the omicron BA.1 strain, as opposed to the more prevalent BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants targeted in the newly authorized version of the shot.
"So there are very subtle differences, but we have no reason to expect that this is going to have any different safety signal than either the 600 million doses we previously have given or these other bivalent boosts against omicron," Walensky says.
What's already clear, she adds, is that protection against the virus wanes over time, and that a booster will restore protection against infection, severe disease and death. She also points to lab studies that show this updated booster improves immune responses against other SARS-CoV-2 variants as well as similar responses to the original variant.
"So we have every reason to expect that it'll work just as well, and likely better," she says.
This interview was produced by Kaity Kline and edited by Simone Popperl.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Americans will soon have access to updated COVID-19 booster shots. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention signed off on the new formulations last night. Some doses could be available as soon as today that target both the original strain of coronavirus and two common omicron subvariants. CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky is on the line.
Welcome back to the program.
ROCHELLE WALENSKY: Thanks so much, Steve. Always good to be with you.
INSKEEP: So for those who choose to get the booster, how should they time it?
WALENSKY: Oh. Well, what we would say is you're eligible to get the booster if you're over 12, if you've received your primary series and if you're at least two months after your prior dose. So doses are rolling into pharmacies and other sites now. And I would say if you're eligible for your boost, there is no bad time to go out and get one.
INSKEEP: Hasn't there been some disagreement among experts about waiting two months or four months since your last shot?
WALENSKY: You know, what we've seen is that almost everybody who is eligible for a boost is far more beyond two months from their last shot. Certainly, we wouldn't want somebody to get a boost too soon. And so we wouldn't want you to get a boost before two months. But I would say if you're three, four, five months after your last shot, now is the time to go ahead and get it.
INSKEEP: I just want to note something that we've covered here on the program. This vaccine variant was not tested in people. It was tested in mice to save time. How does that compare with the process for other vaccines that get updated from time to time?
WALENSKY: Well, first, let me just clarify that. What we have seen is - first of all, we have 600 million doses of this vaccine that have been given with an extraordinary safety record. So we know very well how the mRNA platform against COVID is working.
INSKEEP: You're referring to the previous version, the 600 million doses of the previous version, right?
WALENSKY: That's exactly right...
INSKEEP: OK. Go on.
WALENSKY: ...Of the original vaccine. We also have data on a bivalent vaccine in about 1,400 people that show a very similar safety record. So there are very subtle differences, but we have no reason to expect that this is going to have any different safety signal than either the 600 million doses we've previously had given or this other bivalent boost against omicron. So we are quite confident in how well and how safe these vaccines will operate.
INSKEEP: You're confident in the effectiveness as well?
WALENSKY: Well, here's what we know. We know that protection has waned over time. And we know that a boost right now will restore that protection against infection, against severe disease and death.
INSKEEP: Dr. Walensky, I believe this is the first time you've spoken with us since you looked back on the early pandemic and said the CDC is, quote, "responsible for some pretty dramatic, pretty public mistakes from testing to data to communications." Bottom line, what was the effect of those mistakes on the public?
WALENSKY: You know, what I wanted to do is take a moment - I've been in this position for a little over a year and a half - and to do a review and say there are many things that we did successfully. But we at CDC have not had in our 76-year history the need to respond to an outbreak, to a pandemic that has literally touched every single American. And so in this review, one of the things I wanted to do is to take a look back, learn from some of those mistakes and then put in new systems and structures within CDC so that we could improve should and when another outbreak, a pandemic occur.
INSKEEP: I know you want to look forward here, I would imagine. But of course, you also have to look back. And that's what the review was. And I want to ask about one specific part of the response. Anya Kamenetz was on the program the other day - former NPR education reporter, covered the whole pandemic up to now and wrote a book on the human cost of keeping schools closed so long. There were many reasons, of course. It was a local decision, but federal officials talked about it. And this is what Anya had to say about public health experts.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
ANYA KAMENETZ: Not to diminish the difficulty of the job that they were trying to do in this incredibly fast-moving situation, but the World Health Organization and the European equivalent of the CDC spoke very strongly and clearly in favor of opening schools. And our CDC did not speak in the same full-throated way about balancing the needs of children with the need to control the pandemic.
INSKEEP: That was Anya Kamenetz.
Dr. Walensky, do you accept that that was one of the CDC failures?
WALENSKY: Well, certainly I was not in the CDC when schools were closed. But let me tell you - what I think people were thinking at the time, which is one of the areas, especially in other respiratory viruses, where there's high rates of fatalities among children, and so keeping the schools closed or closing them originally was really intended to buy a little time to learn about...
WALENSKY: ...How this respiratory virus is going to spread. I will say that starting in January 2021, I have said and continued to say for - schools should be the first place to open and the last place to close. So it had to be the place that we focus to make sure if nothing else was working, we needed it - first to get our children back to school. We needed it to be a safe place for our children, for our teachers, for our staff.
INSKEEP: Dr. Walensky, it's a pleasure talking with you again. Thank you so much.
WALENSKY: Thank you so much for having me. Take care.
INSKEEP: Rochelle Walensky is director of the CDC.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE'S "BLUE WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.