Omicron-specific booster should be available soon

September 01, 2022
close up of syringe being stuck into vial of vaccine
Experts believe a new booster that targets Omicron and its subvariants should be available to Americans in the next week or so. iStock

On Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration authorized an Omicron-specific booster, marking the first redesign of coronavirus vaccines since they were rolled out nearly two years ago. The Omicron variant has been the dominate strain since early this year, with the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants being especially transmissible. 

It is anticipated that on Friday, Sept. 2, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will sign off on the authorization. After that, it’s all systems go.

“Once it’s given the OK, we’ll put in an order, and it should ship pretty quickly. The entire process should take about a week, meaning we should have it available to anyone who wants it the week of Sept. 12, maybe sooner,” said Danielle Scheurer, M.D., MUSC Health System chief quality officer. 

The new booster comes at a point in the pandemic when approximately 90,000 infections and 475 deaths are being recorded daily in this country. Though hospitalizations have become much rarer, COVID-19 is still the third leading cause of death in the United States. 

Though this targeted booster should help to slow the spread of the virus, Scheurer is skeptical that it will fly off the shelves. 

“My guess is the uptake will be low. So many people have gotten COVID at this point, and many just aren’t getting that sick. I think people are just over it. I hate to say it, but I think a lot of folks are going, ‘I’ll just take my chances,’” she said.

But Scheurer cautioned that people who are at higher risk, such as older Americans or those with preexisting health conditions, should seriously consider getting this booster. And for those who aren’t in the higher-risk category, one motivator to get this booster might be to avoid getting long COVID, when virus-related symptoms can linger indefinitely beyond an infection.

As for the science behind the new booster, Scheurer said it was synthesized in the same way the first vaccine was, only it’s bivalent, meaning the encoded messenger RNA targets two spike proteins, instead of one: the original virus and Omicron and its known subvariants. Additionally, the dosage for this one is a little lower. 

“I think it’s important that people know that this is intended to act as a booster, not a stand-alone vaccine,” she said. “Meaning that for people who haven’t been vaccinated, the course of action is to get your original two doses and then this.” 

Two boosters will be available: one by Pfizer BioNTech, for use in people age 12 and up, and the other by Moderna, targeted to those 18 years and up. MUSC expects to receive the Pfizer booster.

Though MUSC is in the process of decommissioning all of its stand-alone vaccine sites, the new booster will be offered at the MUSC Health Pharmacy at Rutledge Tower as well as by most, if not all, MUSC Health affiliated primary care physician sites. 

Though things seem to be trending in the right direction in this country, Scheurer still remains vigilant.

“Given the volume of people who have gotten Omicron, I’m kind of surprised we haven’t had another rapidly evolving variant,” she said. “I think we’ve been pretty lucky. But then again, this might just be the new normal – a world where we coexist with COVID and life goes on.”