The decision by CDC Director Rochelle Walensky came shortly after the agency’s advisers said if enough people roll up their sleeves, the shots could blunt a winter surge.
“The updated COVID-19 boosters are formulated to better protect against the most recently circulating COVID-19 variant,” she said in a statement. “They can help restore protection that has waned since previous vaccination and were designed to provide broader protection against newer variants. This recommendation followed a comprehensive scientific evaluation and robust scientific discussion. If you are eligible, there is no bad time to get your COVID-19 booster and I strongly encourage you to receive it.”
The tweaked shots made by Pfizer and rival Moderna offer Americans a chance to get the most up-to-date protection at yet another critical period in the pandemic. They’re combination or “bivalent” shots — half the original vaccine and half protection against the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron versions now causing nearly all COVID-19 infections.
Pfizer’s boosters are for people ages 12 years and older, while Moderna’s booster is for people 18 years and older.
The CDC’s advisers struggled with who should get the new booster and when because only a similarly tweaked vaccine, not the exact recipe, has been studied in people so far.
But ultimately, the panel deemed it the best option considering the U.S. still is experiencing tens of thousands of COVID-19 cases and about 500 deaths every day — even before an expected new winter wave.
“I think they’re going to be an effective tool for disease prevention this fall and into the winter,” said CDC adviser Dr. Matthew Daley of Kaiser Permanente Colorado.
Comparing the tweak that has been studied in people and the one the U.S. actually will use, “it is the same scaffolding, part of the same roof, we’re just putting in some dormers and windows,” said Dr. Sarah Long of Drexel University.
Pfizer said it expected to deliver 3 million doses to vaccination sites around the country by Tuesday.
The original COVID-19 vaccines still offer strong protection against severe illness and death, especially among younger and healthier people who’ve gotten at least one booster.
But those vaccines were designed to target the virus strain that circulated in early 2020. Effectiveness drops as new mutants emerge and more time passes since someone’s last shot. Since April, hospitalization rates in people older than 65 have jumped, the CDC said.
That’s how flu vaccines are updated every year, the CDC noted.
Dr. Pablo Sanchez of the Ohio State University was the only CDC adviser to vote against recommending the shots. He said he believes the bivalent vaccine is safe and that he likely will get it.
But “I just feel that this was a bit premature” given the absence of human data on how well it works, he said.
Several CDC advisers said that to get the maximum benefit, people will need to wait longer between their last vaccination and the new booster than the two-month minimum set by the FDA. Waiting at least three months would be better, they said.
One more change: The FDA no longer authorizes use of the original-recipe boosters for anyone 12 or older — a source of potential confusion for people who had planned on getting a regular booster this week and now may have to wait for the new kind to arrive at their local pharmacy or clinic.
It’s not clear how many people will want an updated shot. Just half of vaccinated Americans got the first recommended booster dose, and only a third of those 50 and older who were urged to get a second booster did so.
The U.S. government has purchased 170 million doses from both companies — shots that will be free — and the CDC said 200 million people could be eligible.
In the coming weeks, CDC also expects to recommend updated boosters for other pediatric groups.
Associated Press medical writer Mike Stobbe contributed to this report.
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