Through good science and luck, there is welcome alignment between the prevalent coronavirus strain and the booster shot to combat it. The bivalent boosters available from Pfizer and Moderna have been tweaked to target the BA.4/5 variants, and so far, no major new variants have stormed onto the scene. But the vaccines are useless if the public doesn’t get them.
The new bivalent boosters are off to a slow start. In Minnesota, vaccine uptake is running way behind that of the first booster doses, with fewer than 4 percent of those 12 and older up to date on their shots. In Florida, only about 37,000 out of 20 million eligible people have gotten the bivalent booster dose.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says only about 7.6 million Americans in all have rolled up their sleeves for the new dose in the weeks since it became available. The Biden administration ordered 171 million doses. The Pfizer shot is available for those 12 years old and above; the Moderna for 18 years old and more. Both manufacturers have asked for regulatory authorization for shots for younger patients.
Two experts at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign wrote in the Chicago Tribune that many people are “taking a wait-and-see approach.” Waiting might be justified for some people, including those who suffered covid-19 recently. The CDC guidance is to get it sometime between recovery from covid and three months later. The CDC also suggests waiting two months from the last vaccination, but it might be fine to wait longer. Studies have shown previous vaccines began to wane in effectiveness after five or six months. And there is no harm in getting a booster and the flu shot at the same time, but in different arms.
President Biden’s recent declaration that the pandemic is over might have left many people with the mistaken impression they don’t need the booster. The pandemic is not over, and the BA.4/5 variants are still infecting and sickening people. Another reason for reluctance could be that bivalent vaccines are new and were not subjected to large human clinical trials before deployment. But new scientific studies based on humans have been coming out and showing the boosters are stimulating an immune response. Yet another reason for the low uptake is simply fatigue and vaccine hesitancy, much of it based on disinformation and irresponsible anti-vaccine campaigns.
The bivalent boosters are worth getting. They keep people out of hospitals, save lives and combat the pandemic. Had a major new variant arisen, the current bivalent formula might have been overtaken. But luckily, a new threat hasn’t appeared, though the virus is still evolving, and might yet present a new and dangerous variant.
Don’t forget: This could well be the last free shot; it is the final one Congress has funded. Chasing the virus with new boosters every few months is not a long-term strategy, but it is all we have at the moment, until a next-generation vaccine is developed that can fight all or most variants and provide long-lasting protection. Right now, skipping the booster is rolling the dice. Why take the chance?
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