It’s Booster Season

We now have a booster against both the original strain of the virus and the Omicron variant.

Liz Ruark
Hand wearing a latex glove holding a COVID-19 vaccine

December 2022: We now have real-world evidence showing that getting a BA.4 / 5 booster helps decrease your chance of getting infected, even with variants that appeared after BA.4 / 5.

Do you remember getting vaccines when you were a kid? Most of us don’t, me included. I have a vague, unformed memory that dates maybe to preschool — kids lined up in a classroom, waiting to get presents wrapped in bright red and yellow crepe paper. They were prizes for “being brave” while you got a shot for . . . something. I’m not even sure. It wasn’t the shot that was important, after all. The presents were much more interesting.

My point? That once upon a time, getting another shot was no big deal. It was an opportunity for a lollipop, or — if you were really lucky — a whole present, wrapped in colorful paper. Can we make this upcoming COVID-19 booster season like that? Something we all do just as a matter of course without worrying too much about it? Here’s some info about the latest booster to help that process along.

How is this booster different from the ones we’ve gotten before?

The big change is that this booster is designed to teach our bodies about two different versions of the virus. Here’s why.

The vaccines we’ve used so far were made to teach our bodies about the original strain of coronavirus — the one that made us hoard toilet paper way back in 2020. And the virus has changed a lot since then.

These days, the version we’re dealing with is Omicron BA.5, which can get around some of the immunity that the original vaccine gives us. That’s why people who are vaccinated —even ones who’ve kept up to date with boosters — can still get infected. (But don’t forget — these vaccines still do a terrific job of keeping people from getting super-sick and dying.)

So far, getting a booster of the original vaccine has bumped up our bodies’ ability to block infection for a few months. And if we all got boosted again with the original vaccine alone, it would probably still do that. But with Omicron churning out new variants that do end-runs around our immunity, the FDA decided the next booster needed something more. It asked vaccine makers to create a shot that teaches the body about both the original strain and Omicron BA.4/BA.5. That way, if the virus shows up tomorrow with new mutations based on BA.4/BA.5, we’ll be better protected.

How did vaccine makers create this shot so quickly?

Folks, that’s exactly why the mRNA vaccines (the ones made by Pfizer and Moderna) are such a big deal. These kinds of vaccines are extra-cool because they can be changed really quickly to fight new viral strains.

The mRNA vaccines basically contain a ton of little instruction packets for your body, wrapped in bubbles of fat. The instructions are written in messenger RNA (mRNA). To make a different vaccine, scientists change the mRNA instructions. The rest of the vaccine stays exactly the same.

Why hasn’t this vaccine been tested in people yet?

Actually, a few versions of it have been: the one we’ve all been getting, a version that was made to fight the original version plus Omicron BA.1, and one that was made to fight Beta, before Omicron existed. But, there just hasn’t been time to test this new original/BA.5 version in people.

That said, the point of these tests wasn’t safety, because we already know this type of vaccine is safe enough. We’ve used it in hundreds of millions of people. The only question these tests would answer is how well the vaccine would work. And we have research in mice that shows it works very well.

Yes, I know mice aren’t people. But guess what — we do this sort of thing every year, with flu vaccines. They’re tested in mice, because there isn’t time to test them in humans before flu season starts. Doing things this way isn’t new.

Should I get this booster right away, or should I wait?

When in doubt, ask your health-care provider. If they’re not getting back to you with an answer, or you don’t have a health-care provider, here are a few things to think about.

You have to wait to get boosted if

  • You got your most recent COVID-19 shot less than two months ago. You aren’t eligible until that much time has passed. That’s because a booster won’t do anything at that point — your immune system isn’t ready for it yet.

  • You’re not vaccinated. You have to get your primary series of vaccines first.

Consider waiting to get boosted if

  • You’ve had COVID-19 within the last three months. Before Omicron, infection protected you from getting the disease again for about 90 days. But with Omicron, it looks like that protection may not last that long. So, maybe don’t wait the full 90 days before getting boosted — especially if you’re over 50 or have health problems that put you at high risk.

Epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina has put together a useful timeline of when to consider getting boosted (you can find that here). But remember, if you’re over 50 — and especially if you’re over 65 — you’re in the group at highest risk from this thing, which argues for getting boosted sooner rather than later.

Whatever you decide, please, just get boosted, okay? No matter what age you are, it’s your best bet for staying out of the hospital. Folks over 50 who keep up to date with their vaccinations are about 90% less likely to die from COVID-19 than those who aren’t boosted. And, unless Congress decides to supply more funding for COVID-19 prevention, this will be the last COVID vaccine that’s free to everyone in the nation. So, let’s all get the shot. And, if it helps, give yourself a present too.