As COVID surge continues, is the booster still working against new variants?

(NEXSTAR) – The summer COVID surge isn’t over. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported hospitalizations jumped another 21.6% last week, and deaths rose by more than 8%.

While the CDC doesn’t track the number of people testing positive anymore, the weeks of rising hospitalizations show people are still getting seriously ill with the virus more than three years into the public health battle against it. However, an updated booster could still be a month or two away from being released.

The last update to the vaccine’s formula was last year when the “bivalent” shot was released. It was designed to target the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID, which is still the dominant variant to this day.

But over the past year, omicron has spawned many subvariants, each with a name composed of letters and numbers. The most common right now, according to CDC tracking, are EG.5 and several types of XBB.

But even as the subvariants continue to change, the booster is likely still good at preventing the worst outcomes of COVID, doctors told Nexstar.

“The currently available booster is still effective even though not a perfect match to the XBB flavors currently circulating in the U.S.,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at University of California, San Francisco. “They remain spectacular at preventing serious disease, hospitalization and death, though prevention of infection with mild symptoms is less durable.”

The problem is that for many people, it’s been months or even close to a year since their last dose. A recent study found the bivalent booster’s effectiveness dropped to 24% after four to six months. (On the other hand, the study noted vaccine effectiveness “was sustained against critical COVID-19–associated outcomes, including intensive care unit admission or death.”)

That means it’s time to get another dose then, right? Actually, for most people, that’s wrong. The CDC is currently only recommending a second bivalent booster for people 65 and older, or those who are immunocompromised.

Everyone else who wants another dose is probably going to have to wait for the new booster. There’s no definitive release date yet, but it’s expected to come out sometime in September or October.

“This will be an updated vaccine (XBB.1.5) more closely matched to what has been circulating in the U.S. for most of the year,” explained Chin-Hong. “Virus lineages closely resembling XBB.1.5 are also expected to dominate what will be transmitted for the rest of the year so the vaccine is expected to be highly effective.”

Over the next few weeks, the Food and Drug Administration will determine which groups can get the new booster shot, and the CDC will provide its recommendations afterward, explained Dr. Anand Parekh, chief medical advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Those who can get a booster now, shouldn’t wait, advised Dr. Sherif Mossad, MD, infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic, “since we don’t know when the new monovalent will become available.”

“If you are at high risk for getting ill and prefer to wait, don’t forget you can take Paxlovid or other early therapies to substantially decrease the risk of hospitalization if you get sick during this time,” added Chin-Hong.

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Back to top button