New Omicron variant, BA.5, now causes more than 50% of all new infections in the U.S. 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. Additionally, the immunity generated by people after they have been vaccinated is gone after a few 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 is a good candidate for a booster program?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that everyone ages five and over who have had their COVID-19 vaccinations for at least five months, and two booster shots for anyone 50 and over, no less than four months. People with weak immune systems may need additional boosters. Although public health officials have considered expanding the eligibility of adults for a second booster, both FDA and CDC still need to review data before making a recommendation.
Is it a good idea to hold off until fall for Omicron booster?
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. FDA examined data that mainly focused on BA.1, an older Omicron subvariant. Therefore, the FDA asked vaccine companies to submit additional data about immunity generated by boosters against BA.4/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 noted also that the immunity to current boosters can wane and that people who have been boosted may still be infected by BA. He stressed however that COVID-19 is not as serious in people who have been vaccinated or boosted. The majority of people have milder symptoms and less severe disease. The same holds true for previous COVID-19 infection protection.
The CDC suggests that those who are infected continue to adhere to the same vaccine and booster instructions. “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.
You might consider a second booster.
People could still get the Omicron booster even if they received a second booster during the summer. 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. The original booster would protect people against serious disease for the time being.
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. Data show that for those over 50, this extra booster significantly lowers the chance of you dying or going to ICU. 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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