Studies: Bivalent boosters not much better than old vaccines

Each week, Walpole Public Health Nurse Trish Fisher administers dozens of COVID-19 booster shots, using the newer bivalent vaccines.

“It just mimics some of the variants we’re seeing,” Fisher said. “So that your body will respond with more appropriate immunity.”

But two recent studies found the bivalent boosters aren’t a whole lot better than the original COVID-19 shots, when it comes to immune response. That may be, in part, because the bivalent boosters targeted two variants that are no longer a serious infectious threat: BA4 and BA5. COVID-19 infections in New England are dominated by the XBB-1,5 variant, which rapidly swept through the region over the last month.

Fisher said the biggest question people have when getting the new booster is whether they are permanently protected from getting COVID-19.

“As we know, no vaccine is a hundred percent,” she said.

Though the bivalent boosters may not be superior to older vaccines, they’re still a potent weapon against COVID-19, said William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“The latest CDC data would indicate that the bivalent vaccine is very important,” Schaffner said. “Your risk of hospitalization if you’ve never been vaccinated is seventeen times greater than people who’ve received the bivalent vaccine.”

Among those vaccinated, but not boosted, the hospitalization risk is doubled, Schaffner said.

Fisher said things seem to be improving with regard to COVID-19 in her town.

“I’ve noticed that the severity has absolutely decreased,” she said, “but a lot of people are still getting very sick, depending on any underlying health issues.” Fisher added, “unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to go away.”

Schaffner likens our relationship with COVID-19 at this juncture of the pandemic as a “truce.”

“But we have to keep our guard up,” he said.

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