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Should you wait for the Omicron booster? in a word not

If you’re like most Americans, you’ve received your main doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, but you haven’t received the recommended booster shots. So if it’s been several months since your last primary dose, you probably need a booster.

But the companies behind two of the most popular COVID-19 vaccines, Moderna and the team at Pfizer and BioNTech, have added a new variable to the mix. Last month, they said they had new versions from them reinforcement shots which are designed to target the highly infectious Omicron family of COVID variants.

So you may be wondering, “Should I get a booster shot now, while cases are rising, or should I wait until the new boosters are ready, probably this fall?”

The answer, several vaccine experts said emphatically and without hesitation, is that there is no better time than the present.

“Definitely get it now!” paula canonprofessor of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, in an email.

“Trying to predict the future with this virus, even as close as the fall, is not a good idea,” he said. “And even with Omicron’s most specific vaccines, they are highly unlikely to provide absolute protection against infection.”

That hardly makes them useless, Cannon noted: “They will continue to do the much more important job that all vaccines do, of protecting against serious illness and death.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges everyone over the age of 5 to one or two booster shotsdepending on your age and the health of your immune system, as the protection provided by the vaccine wears off over time.

but dr thomas campbell, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said CDC data show that while two-thirds of the US population gets the Johnson & Johnson vaccine), just under half of that group has received a booster shot. And fewer than 30% of adults over 50 who received a booster have received the recommended second follow-up, Campbell said.

As a result, “only a small percentage of the population” have received all of the vaccine doses the CDC recommends, he said. Instead of waiting for the next generation of injections, Campbell said, “people should get the boosters they’re eligible for now.”

He also noted that the upcoming boosters from Moderna and Pfizer, like the current ones, are available only to people who have received both primary doses. So if it stopped after one shot, you need to get the second one. Those injections provide certain forms of protection that the new boosters do not.

dr oto yang, professor of medicine and associate chief of infectious diseases at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, said the question of whether to wait for new boosters “has come up quite a bit” and that “different people have different opinions.” But his advice? “Get it now, then worry about variant-specific reinforcement later.”

One of the main reasons to get vaccinated now, he said, is the increase in reported cases in the summer. Another is that the current vaccine “is still extremely good at keeping people from getting seriously ill or dying.”

But a third reason, he said, is that the advantage appears to be relatively small. Moderna’s data shows that their targeted booster “was only modestly better” than the current one “in terms of antibody activity against Omicron.”

And besides, antibodies are only part of the story when it comes to fighting COVID.

Vaccines stimulate two different parts of the body’s immune system: antibodies, which primarily try to prevent a virus from infecting a cell, and T cells, which can kill infected cells and stimulate the production of more antibodies. To oversimplify a bit, Yang said, antibodies seek to prevent an infection from spreading throughout the body, and if that fails, T cells try to prevent the infection from doing much damage.

The antibodies initially generated by the vaccine can prevent the coronavirus from attaching to healthy cells and causing an infection. But SARS-CoV-2 has evolved and variants like Omicron have changed enough that those antibodies don’t recognize them.

“That’s why vaccines haven’t been very good at keeping people from getting infected” by Omicron, Yang said. But the variant is about 97% the same as the original, she said, so the T cells stimulated by the vaccines are not prevented from doing their job.

“That is why vaccines have continued to work very well to prevent us from getting infected. [extremely] sick and dying,” Yang said. And that’s why “the new vaccine isn’t going to be much better than the original, if anything, at preventing serious illness and death.”

Research shows that vaccine-induced T cells fade over time, as do antibodies. That’s why the CDC has recommended booster doses. At this time, the CDC does not recommend a second booster for people under age 50 with healthy immune systems, or a third booster for people over age 50 or who are immunocompromised.

Many experts believe that annual or semi-annual COVID-19 boosters may ultimately be needed, but researchers are still studying the long-term effectiveness of vaccines.

“What people need to realize,” Campbell said, “is that we are learning to use these vaccines as we use them.”

Another X factor, according to Cannon, is the evolutionary path that SARS-CoV-2 follows.

“We don’t even know that the variants of the virus that will circulate in the fall will still be Omicron and his friends,” he said. “We could be looking at a completely new variant. … So instead of trying to guess anything, we should stick to what we know, which is that boosters work well now, to boost people’s immunity.”

The bottom line, Cannon said: If you’re eligible for another dose, “you should definitely go ahead and get a booster now.”

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This article is from The Times public service journalism team. Our mission is to be essential to the lives of Southern Californians by publishing information that solves problems, answers questions, and helps with decision-making. We serve audiences in and around Los Angeles, including current Times subscribers and diverse communities whose needs have historically been unmet by our coverage.

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