Americans who have received the updated COVID-19 booster shots are better protected against symptomatic infections than those who have not — at least for now, U.S. health officials said Tuesday.
Updated boosters rolled out by Pfizer and rival Moderna in September have been a tough sell for vaccine-weary Americans. So far, only about 13% of American adults have received a “bivalent” vaccine that targets the omicron strain and the original coronavirus. On Tuesday, White House officials announced new pressure for more Americans to get the latest snaps.
The first look at the real effectiveness of new vaccines shows they work, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.
Speaking at a White House briefing expected to be his last before retiring from government at the end of the year, Fauci said “perhaps the last message I give you from this podium is that please, for your own safety, for that of your family, get vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as you are eligible.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed about 360,000 COVID-19 tests given to people with coronavirus-like symptoms at pharmacies nationwide between September, when the new reminders were rolled out, and early November. The researchers compared the vaccination status of those who ended up having COVID-19 with those who did not.
The new booster targeting omicron added 30% to 56% protection against symptomatic infection, depending on how many previous vaccinations a person had, for how long, and their age, the CDC concluded.
The people who benefit the most are those who had never received a booster before, only two doses of the original COVID-19 vaccine at least eight months earlier, said Dr. Ruth Link-Gelles of the CDC, who has led the study.
But even people who received a summer booster of the original vaccine before seeking the new fall formula were 30 to 40 percent more protected than if they had skipped the latter vaccine, she said.
“We think of it as an added benefit or added benefit of getting one more dose, and in this case, that one more dose is a bivalent,” Link-Gelles said.
The updated recalls target the BA.5 omicron strain which until recently was the most common type, an effort to build on the protection of the original COVID-19 vaccines as the virus continues to mutate.
The original injections offered strong protection against serious illness and death in any variant, but protection against mild infections is diminishing. The CDC’s analysis only tracked the first few months of use of the new boosters, so it’s too early to know how long the extra protection against symptomatic infection lasts.
But “certainly we are entering the holiday season, personally, I would like the most protection possible if I see my parents and grandparents,” Link-Gelles said. “Infection protection is going to be really helpful, because you could potentially save yourself from making a grandparent or other loved one sick.”
Even protection against serious illnesses declined when BA.5 jumped, which is why health authorities strongly urged the elderly and other high-risk people not to ignore the new reminder.
To that end, the Biden administration has announced a six-week campaign urging people — especially the elderly — to get the boosters, saying the shots 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 vaccination. against the flu. The flu hit unusually hard and early this year. Combined with cases of COVID-19 and other problematic respiratory viruses, hospitals and doctors’ offices are packed.
Some people may be reluctant to get vaccinated or vaccinated due to a torrent of misinformation about vaccines despite evidence that they are safe and have saved millions of lives.
“You can decide to trust American doctors or you can trust some random guy on Twitter,” said White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha.
Fauci said “as a doctor, it hurts me” that the country’s harsh political divide is causing 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 there is another winter surge will be people who have never had the primary vaccine series.
Adding to the uncertainty, the relatives of BA.5 are now the most common coronavirus subtypes. Lab tests from Pfizer and Moderna show the updated booster boosts people’s anti-virus antibody levels, particularly against BA.5. The companies point to preliminary antibody evidence that the new vaccines may also offer at least some protection against even newer omicron subtypes, although they are not an exact match.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.