Getting the new and improved COVID-19 booster shot should be easier than when the first vaccines were released, Spokane’s health officer said Friday.
After the Food and Drug Administration authorized booster shots that target omicron subvariants earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control on Thursday recommended the booster for those who completed their original vaccine series at least two months ago. The Pfizer-BioNTech booster is recommended for those 12 and up, while the Moderna shot is recommended for people 18 and older.
Now regional and state health organizations will evaluate the shots, with recommendations from local health districts along with logistical information expected this week. Once those recommendations are announced, vaccines should quickly be available at the more than 100 providers in the Spokane area that already provide COVID-19 vaccines, said Dr. Francisco Velázquez, health officer at the Spokane Regional Health District.
What’s the difference?
The original Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were based on the original virus, which has since mutated into new variants, including delta and omicron.
Not only do the original vaccines not work as well against the new variants, but their effectiveness wanes as time passes after vaccination.
This new, reformulated vaccine is a bivalent vaccine, meaning half of the antigens are from the original virus strain and the other half are from the new omicron BA.5 variant, Velázquez said.
For Moderna, in a 50-microgram dose, that means 25 micrograms are the ancestral strand while the other 25 are from the new strands, he said.
Variants are like branches off a metaphorical tree, Velázquez said. As each branch sprouts off, there are smaller branches that grow from there. Those are subvariants, like BA.5, the most common form of the virus circulating , Velázquez said.
“The goal of a booster that has been reformulated is a better immune response against the current variants,” he said.
It’s hoped these new booster shots will also better protect against future variants, he said.
The formulation process Pfizer and Moderna went through isn’t new, Velázquez said. It’s similar to what scientists do each year with the flu, looking at the viruses circulating the most and creating a combination vaccine that provides immunity against them.
As fall and winter approach, modeling says there may be an increase of COVID-19 cases, Velázquez said.
Many people who got their initial vaccines shortly after they were available are also are facing waning immunity.
“There’s a significant portion of the population that completed their series quite some time ago,” Velázquez said.
The new booster will offer extended protection timed perfectly for the potential fall case surge, he said.
“It will be the ideal time to give you that protection that will take you through fall and winter,” he said.
Representatives from Oregon, Washington and California will look at the CDC’s recommendation and make their recommendation specific to the region, part of the Western States Scientific Safety Review Workgroup that formed in the early days of the pandemic to provide guidance to member states.
That recommendation will be followed by a review from the Washington State Department of Health, Velázquez said.
After that, the Spokane Regional Health District will announce its specific plan, Velázquez said.
He expects the rollout to go much more smoothly, getting the vaccine to the region and having providers get it into patients’ arms. Pharmacies, primary care physicians, urgent cares and stores such as Walgreens and Rite Aid offer COVID-19 vaccines and are also expected to offer the new booster, Velázquez said.
“My expectation will be that the supply chain will move faster than the original release,” he said. “I am hopeful that we will see some availability in the near future.”
With flu season and the predicted wave of COVID-19 cases, Velázquez recommends anyone who is eligible to get both the flu shot and COVID-19 booster as soon as possible.
As other prevention measures like masking and social distancing become less common, vaccines have become an even more important tool to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses, he said.
The health district recently held a series of back-to-school vaccination clinics that offered a variety of shots, including the original COVID-19 vaccine. The district plans to continue vaccination clinics through the fall, Velazquez said.
A list of upcoming clinics is available on the Spokane Regional Health District’s website, srhd.org/events.