A booster shot targeting the most contagious omicron subvariants should be available on Long Island this week — the first step in a nationwide immunization campaign to ward off a potential surge of COVID-19 cases this fall and winter, state officials said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday approved the use of two “bivalent” booster shots that combine the original vaccine recipe with a new formula to provide enhanced protection against the BA. 4 and BA. 5 subvariants.
The 13-1 approval by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices came one day after the FDA greenlit the two-shot booster by Pfizer-BioNTech for those ages 12 and above and a single dose by Moderna for those 18 and older.
“The updated COVID-19 boosters are formulated to better protect against the most recently circulating COVID-19 variant,” said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky in a statement. “They can help restore protection that has waned since previous vaccination and were designed to provide broader protection against newer variants.”
A ‘robust network’
The updated booster vaccines should begin being delivered this week in New York in small quantities based on preorders, with availability rapidly expanding shortly thereafter, according to the state Department of Health.
The department does not expect any problem with supply of the boosters, a spokeswoman said. They will be available at community health clinics, doctors’ offices, hospitals and pharmacies. Individuals can use Vaccines.gov to find nearby locations.
“We have a very robust network of pharmacies and clinics and private practitioners and there will be any number of places for people to go to get vaccinated,” State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said on Thursday.
Statewide, excluding New York City, department officials said they’ve ordered 83,100 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech bivalent booster and another 50,700 doses of the Moderna vaccine.
While medical officials said the original COVID-19 vaccines and boosters continue to protect against severe illness and death, they have limitations.
The vaccines were designed to target the strain of the virus that first circulated in early 2020. As new variants of the virus emerge, and it becomes longer since a patient’s most recent shot, experts say the effectiveness of the vaccine, particularly in combating infection, wanes considerably.
The updated boosters — which are being purchased by the federal government and provided to Americans at no cost — can be taken at least two months after an individual has received their last primary vaccination or booster.
Individuals must have received their primary vaccinations to be eligible for the bivalent booster. Anyone who has received the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be also eligible, officials said.
“The current boosters do a very good job and hopefully these new boosters will even do a better job,” said Dr. Aaron Glatt, chairman of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside. “Not only that, but possibly even in preventing some illness. So I’m very hopeful that this will be a positive thing for overall COVID-care prevention and getting back to normal in the United States.”
The new booster can be administered simultaneously with other vaccines, such as the annual flu shot, and it takes about two weeks to be fully effective. The original booster formulation will no longer be authorized, officials said.
Federal officials are expected to consider use of the updated booster in younger children once pediatric data is released in the coming months.
Nassau spokesman Chris Boyle said residents will soon be able to receive the bivalent vaccine at area pharmacies, primary care providers and Federally Qualified Health Centers. Suffolk spokeswoman Nicole Russo said the county is planning to set up a booster pod later this month at the H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge.
CVS will distribute the updated boosters at its pharmacies across the state and throughout the country, the company said.
“We expect our pharmacies to begin to receive supply on a rolling basis over the next few days,” CVS said in a statement late last week that encouraged patients to make appointments online because of the limited initial supply.
Representatives with Rite Aid and Walmart each also said they expect to be administering the updated boosters this week.
‘The future we’re heading for’
The process of testing for the new boosters served as a significant departure from the previous vaccines, which relied on lengthy clinical human trials.
Authorization of the bivalent booster comes largely on trial data collected from testing the safety and immune response triggered by the shots in mice, as well as data from other formulations previously studied by the vaccine makers.
The approach, which sped up the process in advance of a potential wave of cases this fall, resembles the annual federal approval of the influenza vaccine, officials said. Nonetheless, the two vaccine makers are still planning to complete human clinical trials of the new shot.
Advisory Committee member Dr. Pablo Sanchez, of The Ohio State University, was the lone “no” vote to approve the booster, citing a lack of human data.
“I just feel that this was a bit premature, and I wish that we had seen that data,” Sanchez said during the meeting. “Having said that, I am comfortable that the vaccine will likely be safe like the others.”
Committee member Dr. Jamie Loehr, of Cayuga Family Medicine in Ithaca, said he was comfortable voting for the bivalent boosters, even without human data.
“This is the future that we’re heading for,” Loehr said. “We’re going to have more variants and we should be treating this like the flu, where we can use new strain variants every year.”
Dr. Matthew Harris, medical director of the Northwell Health vaccination program, agreed and said he was confident the updated boosters are safe and effective.
“The technology that was used to engineer the first version of these vaccines has not changed, and they’ve proven to be overwhelmingly safe with very few cases of serious side effects,” Harris said. “And I think that will hold true with the bivalent vaccine as well.”
Robert Brodsky is a breaking news reporter who has worked at Newsday since 2011. He is a Queens College and American University alum.