A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) committee on Thursday recommended updated COVID-19 vaccine boosters for people 12 and older, helping clear the way for a fall campaign for the shots.
Once CDC Director Rochelle Walensky gives the final sign off, which is expected soon, the vaccinations can begin.
The vote passed 13-1, with one member, Dr. Pablo Sanchez of Ohio State University, voting no over a concern about lacking enough human data on the updated shots.
The updated shots were designed to specifically target the subvariants of omicron that are currently circulating, known as BA.4 and BA.5, as well as the original virus.
By updating for the latest evolutions in the virus, the shots are intended to be more effective than the original vaccines, though the older vaccines still provide important protection against severe illness.
As long as people have received the first two shots, it has been at least two months since their last dose and they are aged 12 or older, they are eligible for the new updated booster dose.
The Department of Health and Human Services said Thursday that the campaign of administering the new shots, from both Pfizer and Moderna, is expected to begin “in earnest to eligible people shortly after Labor Day.”
In a bid to keep up with changes in the virus, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Wednesday authorized the updated vaccines without waiting for the full clinical trials to be completed, which did provoke some discussion at the CDC meeting, with Sanchez in particular expressing concern.
But the FDA and several CDC panel members noted there is a strong safety record from the millions of doses of the original vaccine that have already been given, as well as data from a slightly different tweaked vaccine, and preliminary data for this one.
Waiting would delay administration of the updated vaccines even as the virus continues to take a toll.
The FDA noted that the updates to this vaccine are similar to the process that happens every year for updating the flu vaccine to the latest strains.
“The public can be assured that a great deal of care has been taken by the FDA to ensure that these bivalent COVID-19 vaccines meet our rigorous safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality standards for emergency use authorization,” said Peter Marks, a top FDA vaccine official.
A major question, though, is how many people will actually want the updated booster, given lagging uptake for booster shots of the original vaccine. Only about half of the people who got the first two shots received the initial booster shot, according to CDC data.
Officials are hoping, though, that enough people get the updated booster to provide protection against another wave this fall and winter as the weather gets colder.
“These boosters will be available at tens of thousands of vaccination sites [people have] used previously, including local pharmacies, their physicians’ offices, and vaccine centers operated by state and local health officials,” the Department of Health and Human Services said.