What you need to know about the new COVID booster vaccines

There are two new COVID-19 vaccines that have already received the green light from the Food and Drug Administration. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is expected to offer guidance this Tuesday on who will be able to get them, making the new Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines available as they continue to increase COVID cases in some parts of the world. United States.

While COVID hospitalizations and deaths have declined over the past year, the virus has evolved and mutated, giving rise to more than a dozen different variants, and most people’s immunity has also declined.

Fewer than 20 percent of Americans have received the previous booster shot, a bivalent vaccine that came out last fall and was designed to provide protection against the original virus as well as Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5. And although some parts of our immune system have a good memory, the number of antibodies that help prevent infections decreases significantly over several months.

Reformulated COVID vaccines may help better combat the latest group of subvariants circulating in the United States, and here’s what you need to know.

How are the new COVID vaccines different from the latest ones?

Unlike the bivalent vaccines released last fall, the latest mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna are monovalent, meaning they are designed to protect against only one variant: XBB.1.5, a new Omicron descendant that emerged earlier this year.

Although XBB.1.5 is no longer the predominant version in circulation, preliminary studies suggest that new vaccines should still provide protection against the EG.5 variant that is currently dominant, as well as other variants that have raised some concerns among scientists. for example VA.2.86. According to David Ho, a virologist at Columbia University, data from some academic laboratories indicates that patients infected with XBB.1.5 who have not yet received the vaccine developed enough neutralizing antibodies to “adequately cope” with infections from current versions of the virus . “We think this will be equivalent to getting a vaccine based on XBB1.5,” Ho said.

Vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna also announced that their initial studies suggest the new COVID vaccines provide good protection against EG.5 and BA.2.86. Regulators will also study a third monovalent vaccine, XBB.1.5, developed by Novavax. This Novavax vaccine is protein-based, meaning it works differently than the mRNA vaccine.

The new vaccines do not provide protection against the original virus, which may actually help improve protection against new variants.

“When our immune system has already seen something, it tends to see it again. So if we include the original components, the immune system will respond mainly to the original component and not to the new version of the virus,” Ho said. Initial data from preliminary studies showed that last year’s bivalent formula was no more effective against BA.4 and BA.5 than the original vaccine it replaced because of this “immune signature” tendency.

When will new COVID vaccines be available?

CDC Director Mandy Cohen could authorize new boosters soon after Tuesday’s advisory meeting, with millions of doses available within days.

Where can I get the new COVID vaccine?

Representatives from Walgreens and CVS said their pharmacies will offer COVID vaccines to all people eligible to receive them under CDC guidelines expected Tuesday.

We may also be able to get the new COVID vaccine from our local pharmacy, doctor’s office or public health department.

How much will the new COVID vaccine cost?

At the start of the pandemic, the United States purchased hundreds of millions of vaccine doses and gave them away for free. But now the cost of reformulated vaccines will be negotiated between private insurers and government insurers such as Medicare. Vaccines will likely remain free for most people with private or government health insurance as long as we get them from an in-network provider.

Those without health insurance can get the new COVID vaccines for free at local health centers. Vaccine makers are also expected to donate some doses to people who lack health insurance. It’s possible the government’s bridge program will also help ease access to vaccines, at least until 2024.

Who should get the new COVID vaccine?

The CDC is scheduled to determine eligibility this Tuesday. It seems likely that the new vaccines will be authorized for everyone from 6 months of age, although it is possible that they will be given first to those at greater risk of becoming seriously ill, such as people over 65. and older, as well as those with weakened immune systems or serious health problems.

Can you get a COVID shot and a flu vaccine at the same time?

Yes, just like last year, federal authorities plan to encourage people to get vaccinated at the same time. Studies have shown that it is safe for older adults to receive COVID and influenza vaccines at the same time, as well as influenza and RSV vaccines. We don’t yet have enough data on combining the RSV and COVID vaccines, but experts are confident that combining the two vaccines will make it easier for most people to be protected, Ho said.

A Maryland resident receives a COVID-19 vaccine at Meritus Medical Center in Hagerstown, Maryland, on February 22, 2002. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

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