Updated boosters rolled out in September by Pfizer and rival Moderna are a hard sell for vaccine-weary Americans. Only about 13% of US adults have so far received a “bivalent” injection targeting the omicron strain and the original coronavirus. On Tuesday, White House officials announced a renewed push for more Americans to snap the latest photos.
The first look at the real-world effectiveness of the new injections shows that they work, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert.
At a White House briefing that is expected to be his last before he retires from the administration at the end of the year, Fauci said what “might be the last message I give you from this podium, is that please , for your own safety, for that of your family, get your updated COVID-19 shot as soon as you qualify.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed about 360,000 COVID-19 tests given to people with coronavirus-like symptoms at drugstores across the country between September, when the new boosters came out, and early November. Researchers compared the vaccination status of those who eventually got COVID-19 with those who didn’t.
The new omicron-targeted booster added 30% to 56% protection against symptomatic infection, depending on how many previous vaccinations a person had, how long ago and their age, the CDC concluded.
People who benefit the most are those who had never had a previous booster, just two doses of the original COVID-19 vaccine at least eight months earlier, said Dr. Ruth Link-Gelles of the CDC, who led the study.
But even people who got a booster of the original vaccine in the summer before seeking out the new fall formula were 30% to 40% more protected than if they skipped this last shot, she said.
“We think of it as the added benefit or benefit of getting another dose, and in this case that one dose is a bivalent,” Link-Gelles said.
The updated boosters target the BA.5-omicron strain that until recently was the most common type, an attempt to build on the protection of the original COVID-19 vaccines as the virus continues to mutate.
The original shots have provided strong protection against serious illness and death regardless of variant, but protection against mild infections is diminishing. CDC’s analysis only tracked the first few months of using the new boosters, so it’s too early to know how long extra protection against symptomatic infection lasts.
But “especially as we enter the holiday season, I would personally want the best possible protection when I see my parents and grandparents,” Link-Gelles said. “Infection protection there will be very helpful because you would potentially avoid getting a grandparent or another loved one sick.”
Even protection against serious illness dropped which when BA.5 rose sharply, which is why health authorities have strongly urged older adults and others at high risk not to skip the new booster.
To that end, the Biden administration announced a six-week campaign urging people — especially senior citizens — to get the boosters, saying the injections could save lives as Americans gather for the holidays.
The campaign echoes a call earlier this week from the American Medical Association and nearly a dozen other health groups for people to hurry up and get both the COVID-19 booster and their annual flu vaccination. The flu has hit unusually strong and early this year. Combined with COVID-19 cases and other problematic respiratory viruses, hospitals and doctors’ offices are overcrowded.
Some people may be hesitant to get vaccinated or boosted because of a deluge of misinformation about the injections, despite evidence that they are safe and have saved millions of lives.
“You can decide to trust the American doctors or you can trust a random guy on Twitter,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 Coordinator.
Fauci said “as a doctor it pains me” that the country’s harsh political divisions cause some people to refuse vaccination for non-health reasons.
And he noted that while it’s important that people get the new booster, those most at risk if another winter wave hits will be people who never got the primary vaccine series.
Adding to the uncertainty, relatives of BA.5 are now the most common coronavirus subtypes. Lab tests from Pfizer and Moderna show that the updated booster increases levels of virus-fighting antibodies in humans, specifically against BA.5. The companies point to preliminary antibody evidence that the new injections may also provide at least some protection against the even newer omicron subtypes, despite not being an exact match.