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Bivalent COVID-19 vaccine can ‘turbo charge’ immunity

If you are like a lot of people, you may be wondering whether you are due for a COVID-19 vaccine booster?

The arrival of COVID-19 vaccines in December 2020 was a critical step in stemming the tide of the pandemic. Through various waves of viral variants, including alpha, delta and omicron, those who are fully vaccinated have repeatedly fared best in terms of the risk of serious illness, including hospitalization and death.

With the arrival of vaccine boosters over the last year, it has become increasingly important to stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccination. Boosters are a strategy to “turbo charge” your immune system to respond to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease. Until recently, the booster strategy has been focused on the original, or ancestral strain of the virus. For some age groups, including younger children, this remains true.

However, earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration authorized a new type of COVID-19 booster. This new booster formula is known as a bivalent vaccine, since it contains elements of both the original ancestral strain as well as an omicron variant strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In fact, the omicron component mimics both the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, which are the most widely circulating variants of the virus currently in the United States.

After thorough review and recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the CDC now recommends a bivalent booster for all people 12 and older who have completed a primary vaccine series. For most people, the primary series consists of two doses of the original Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine (although a single dose of Janssen vaccine or two doses of Novavax vaccine is also an option).

To be clear, the single best protection against serious COVID-19 disease for unvaccinated people ages 6 months and older is to get a primary series of a COVID vaccine.

However, for those who have completed a primary vaccine series, as long as it has been at least two months since the last vaccine dose (including previously authorized boosters), the bivalent Pfizer (ages 12 years and older) and Moderna (ages 18 years and older) booster is an excellent choice to further reduce the risk of serious disease, even for people who have already been infected with SARS-CoV-2 and who have had COVID-19.

Bivalent boosters are now readily available. They can be combined with your seasonal flu vaccine (which is also now available and recommended for all people ages 6 months and older) and any other vaccine that is due.

Getting vaccinated and staying up to date with your COVID-19 vaccine boosters is the best protection against serious disease. At a time when the seven-day average of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the U.S. still exceeds 4,500 and the seven-day average of COVID-related deaths remains almost 350, you may want to get vaccinated and stay up to date.

Dr. Matthew A. Clark, a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics, works for the Indian Health Service.