DENVER — New COVID-19 boosters targeting the best-known omicron strains of the novel coronavirus currently spreading across the country will soon be available in Colorado.
While current vaccines still provide strong protection against hospitalization and death, immunity to infection has declined significantly as more immune-avoidable variants have emerged as the pandemic has progressed.
The arrival of the BA.4/5 COVID-19 boosters is good news for those looking for extra protection, but how much of it they will pull off remains to be seen.
Denver7 spoke to Heather Roth, director of immunizations at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, to discuss their effectiveness, how they were approved, what the new boosters mean for families looking to vaccinate their children at the start of a new school year, and more.
Please note: This interview has been edited for time and clarity.
1. The CDC has approved the COVID-19 BA.4/5 bivalent boosters, meaning that the vaccine contains components from the wild-type strain (the original Wuhan strain of the novel coronavirus) and the BA.4/5 sublineages of the Omicron variant contains .
What do we know about the effectiveness of these booster shots against serious diseases and, more importantly, against transmission and infection, considering that no neutralization data have been presented in humans and only mouse data have been used, as is done every year with the flu vaccine the case is?
I think it’s important to know that the updated vaccines are designed and manufactured using the same process as the original vaccines, except they now contain a second component, right? And this is a component aimed at subvariants omicron BA.4 and BA.5.
To review the data in making this decision, both the FDA and CDC looked at the safety and efficacy data from the original mRNA vaccines, which were given to hundreds of millions of people in the US alone. They also looked at the safety and immune response from the bivalent booster studies in about 1,400 people that contained the original strain and the earlier BA.1 variant. And then, as you mentioned, data from a study on the new Omicron vaccines in mice. Based on all of the above, the vaccines are expected to increase protection against the currently circulating subvariants of omicron BA.4/BA.5.
2. Many people who are skeptical about COVID-19 vaccines and the virus itself will say “it’s just a cold” or “it’s just a flu”. First off, is COVID-19 the same as the flu?
No, they are obviously two different viruses and they cause different levels of severity when you get sick.
There’s no such thing as “long flu,” but there is such a thing as “long COVID,” right? There are two separate things, and both are quite real, and we’re headed for fall; they will both circulate at the same time.
3. Knowing that COVID is not the same as the flu, it should worry people that the CDC is taking a flu-like approach to these boosters before Human study data are complete? After all, flu shots aren’t usually very effective – so wouldn’t we want to know how effective these COVID boosters will be before we roll them out?
I think comparing influenza vaccine development to literally any other vaccine is like comparing apples to oranges. The science – the data – this kind of guessing game behind flu vaccine development is very different from what we’re talking about COVID, where we know exactly what subvariants are currently circulating primarily in the US and Colorado.
Back to the mouse study, you’re asking how effective these will be. These studies in mice suggest that these new vaccines will protect against Omicron about 20 times better than the original vaccines we’ve had for more than two years now, and about 5 times better than the manufacturer’s first attempt with Omicron-specific vaccines bivalent vaccines with this BA.1 component.
I would like to add that human clinical trials are ongoing with the BA.4/BA.5 components so we will have more data on this particular piece (of the puzzle) in a month or two.
3. When will the updated booster shots arrive in Colorado and when can I get one?
So the first shipment actually arrived yesterday and we will have around 294,000 cans available in our first two shipment waves. I think the majority of the cans will arrive next week after Labor Day.
You can find a vaccination appointment with many of the same providers that have been offering COVID vaccines again for the last two years – so your retail pharmacies, your GPs, local health departments and then our state – also run clinics – so our mobile buses and our community vaccination centers, which are very will be online soon.
4. Will the state hold a press conference when these boosters become available, or will there be some sort of nationwide text message notifying Coloradans that these updated boosters are here and it’s time to get yours?
We’re not quite at the point where we’re going to make direct contact. I can see this happening after the first few weeks of roll out as that initial demand could drop as we do some outreach to people to make sure they are aware of this change and this new vaccine.
5. The updated boosters are only available to people aged 12+ (Pfizer) and 18+ (Moderna). When will kids under 12 be able to get these updated boosters?
I think the manufacturers have said it will be a month or two before they have the data they need to submit an application to the FDA for Omicron-containing booster doses for children under 12 years old.
6. Should parents wait until approved, or should parents instead give their children a booster shot with the original COVID-19 vaccine, even though the variant currently circulating in the state is Omicron?
Nothing has changed in the long-established leadership. If you are due for a booster shot now, you should get it now. Some protection is still provided, particularly against serious illness and serious consequences brought about by the original vaccine for these younger age groups.
So if you’re due, I’d get it now, knowing there’s something on the way and in a month or two that you’d be eligible for, too.
7. Where do we stand regarding children and their general immunization requirements? We’ve seen vaccination rates drop for children early in the pandemic. Has this percentage increased? If not, is the state considering programs to increase overall vaccination rates?
So you’re right that COVID has kind of disrupted our routine children’s wellness visits, our routine regular immunization visits, and we’ve seen some spikes over the past few years where we’ve kind of climbed out of that trough of that decrease.
But we are seeing continued declines in other vaccines in other age groups. One of the things the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has done recently is directly reaching out, via text and email, to families whose children you know have overdue, like need school shots to make sure they are up know their children are missing out on a vaccine or vaccines and then link them to resources to get them back on track.
8. Should one hesitate to combine vaccinations (e.g. COVID and flu vaccinations or COVID and monkeypox)?
Overall I would say no. When we talk about flu and a new Omicron dose, now is a perfect time to actually roll up both your sleeves and get the flu in one arm, your Omicron dose in the other, and it’s really about timing: September and October are the best months to get your seasonal flu vaccine, it gives your body enough time to build up protection before the flu virus is widespread, and it’s perfectly safe and effective to get multiple vaccines on the same day.
There are some special considerations for monkeypox. I don’t have the data to hand, but I know it has to do with monkeypox and COVID mRNA vaccines and the theoretical risk of increased myocarditis or pericarditis when given on the same day.
(Editor’s note: Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart, while pericariditis is inflammation of the pericardium — a two-layered, sac-like membrane that surrounds the heart.)
9. What about whooping cough (also called pertussis). There are reports that cases are increasing in certain parts of the country. Do we see an increase? What is the real concern? Should I be vaccinated against whooping cough?
I don’t know what our whooping cough case rates are right now. I’m not aware of a similar increase, but I can say that based on data we’ve collected from schools and daycare centers over the past school year, we’ve seen some declines in vaccine uptake that prevent the spread of whooping cough.
Whooping cough is a truly contagious communicable disease and we want to make sure we keep our rates high to keep it out of communities and schools.
Editor’s note: Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. The disease is known for uncontrollable, violent coughing that often makes breathing difficult. A data sheet from the CDC states that whooping cough can affect people of all ages, but can be very serious and even fatal for babies under a year old.
10. The BA.5 variant is the predominant one in Colorado, but infections, hospitalizations, and the state’s positivity rate are all declining. The COVID-19 modeling team even estimates that immunity to infection and hospitalization has increased over the past two months: Colorado has over 60-65% immunity to infection and about 85-90% immunity to serious disease. At this point, is it worth getting the BA.4/5 booster for the fall when the immunity to the BA.5 variant is so high?
I think it’s a personal choice that someone can make and talk to their healthcare provider, but as the virus has evolved so has the vaccine.
It’s really exciting that we’ve got science closer to variants, that we’re not chasing variants as much as we have in recent years. It is the latest and greatest vaccine available and getting this updated vaccine really is the safest and easiest way to be protected to the maximum level during the fall and winter.