A new version of Omicron, BA.5, is now responsible for more than half of new infections in the U.S. No one seems safe from being able to catch it: not even vaccinated people or those who have gotten COVID-19 in the past. That’s because this virus is different enough from the original version—and even from previous versions of Omicron—that the vaccines and booster shots everyone has been getting are less effective against BA.5. Plus, any immunity that people generate, whether after getting vaccinated or infected naturally, wanes after several months.
Given the nation’s diminished immunity and current BA.5 surge, more people are wondering whether they should get a booster (or second booster) now, or if they should wait until the fall when a new shot will likely be available. Here’s what to know.
Who should get a booster? Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend one booster shot for everyone ages 5 and older who are five months out from their last COVID-19 vaccine dose, and second booster doses for people ages 50 and older at least four months after their first booster. (Additional boosters are recommended for people with weakened immune systems.) Public health officials are considering expanding eligibility for a second booster to all adults, but both the FDA and CDC are still reviewing data before making a recommendation.
Should people wait for the Omicron booster in the fall? On June 30, the FDA decided that the next COVID-19 booster needs to target the Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 specifically, because such a booster would likely increase people’s protection from getting infected with Omicron, and hopefully extend that protection to longer than a few months. The data the FDA reviewed involved primarily BA.1, an earlier subvariant of Omicron, so the agency asked vaccine makers to provide additional data on immunity produced by boosters targeting BA.4 and BA.5.
But while it’s tempting to wait until the updated booster is available—which will likely be around October, according to White House health experts—those same experts are urging people to get boosted now, given the rising number of cases due to BA.5.
“The threat to you [from BA.5] is now,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the White House’s chief COVID-19 medical officer, in a briefing on July 12. “If you are not vaccinated to the fullest—namely, not gotten boosters according to the recommendations—you are putting yourself at increased risk.”
Getting boosted now “does not preclude you from also getting an [Omicron-specific] booster in the fall,” he added. “If the risk is now, address the current risk.”
Fauci also noted that immunity from currently available boosters does wane, and that boosted people can still get infected with BA.5. But he stressed that studies show that vaccinated and boosted people tend not to get as seriously ill from COVID-19. Most tend to have milder disease and less severe symptoms. (The same is true for protection generated by previous COVID-19 infections.)
The CDC recommends that people who have been infected with the virus continue to follow the same vaccination and boosting guidance. “If you are previously infected and also vaccinated, you have much more protection from serious disease than prior infection alone, which leads us to recommended that you get vaccinated and stay up to date with boosters,” said CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky during the briefing.
What about a second booster? Even if people get a second booster this summer, they would still be eligible for the updated Omicron booster in the fall or winter. Given the current cadence of 4-6 month intervals between boosters, it’s likely people might have to wait a similar amount of time before getting the updated booster. But the original booster formulation would continue to protect them against severe disease in the interim.
That’s why, for now, public health officials urge anyone age 50 years or older not to put off getting a second booster, since the shot will guard against hospitalizations and death from COVID-19, as well as offer some degree of protection against getting infected.
“If you get a booster now, it does reduce your risk of getting infected [with BA.5],” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, during the briefing. “It does not drive it to zero, but it reduces that risk. And the data are very clear that if you are over 50, that extra booster dramatically lowers the risk of getting into the hospital, going to the ICU, or dying. There are very few things we do in medicine that have the kind of benefit we see from that extra shot.”
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