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New omicron COVID-19 boosters are coming. Here’s what you need to know

COVID-19 booster shots with a new omicron-targeting recipe are expected to arrive in Colorado pharmacies and clinics next week, but the experience of getting them will be largely the same as previous rounds of the vaccine.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized new booster shots meant to target the BA.5 variant of the virus, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended them Thursday.

That means the old shots will no longer be available as boosters, though people getting their first and second shots can still receive them.

Here’s a guide to what we do and don’t know about the boosters:

What’s the difference from the original shots?

Moderna and Pfizer’s shots work by giving the body’s cells instructions to briefly produce the spike protein on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. (The spike protein can’t cause illness or infect others without the rest of the virus attached to it.) The new shots essentially added a component that tweaked the instructions to produce the spike protein found on the BA.5 variant, in addition to the original version found in early 2020, which is long gone from circulation.

The side effect profile is expected to be the same, with sore arms and flu-like symptoms as the most common reactions. Young adult men may want to talk to their doctors about how to reduce a slightly increased risk of temporary inflammation around the heart.

Who should get them?

The CDC recommended the new Pfizer boosters for anyone 12 and older who had their last shot at least two months ago. The Moderna shot is only recommended for those 18 and older, but younger teens can get the Pfizer shot.

People who haven’t been vaccinated are still advised to get two doses of the original Pfizer or Moderna shots, one dose of the Johnson & Johnson shot if their individual circumstances make that a better choice, or two doses of the recently authorized Novavax vaccine. Those getting their third, fourth or fifth shots should receive the new versions.

How do I get the new shot?

The new version will be available anywhere that you can receive the original shots, including pharmacies and doctor’s offices. For now, the shots are free, though that could change next year as the federal government runs out of money set aside to purchase doses.

Why the change?

The existing shots still dramatically cut the risk of hospitalization, death and some complications of the virus, such as dangerous blood clots. But they’re not particularly effective at preventing milder illness, and it’s not clear how well they protect against long COVID symptoms. The idea is that a shot that’s better matched to the variant that is circulating now will offer more protection against any level of infection.

How well do they work?

We don’t know with certainty at this point. Unlike the original COVID-19 vaccines, these went through an abbreviated process, similar to what’s done with the annual flu shot. That means the FDA and CDC relied on data from mice and small studies in people to show that the new shots increased antibodies that can neutralize the dominant BA.5 variant, and didn’t have any new safety concerns. (Neutralizing antibody levels are a proxy for immunity, but not a perfect one.)

Supporters of the change argue that it’s necessary to use a less-intensive process, because by the time manufacturers conducted large clinical trials, the virus may have mutated into a form that makes the updated shots less effective. Critics raise concerns that if the new shots don’t meet public expectations, they could undermine trust in public health and in vaccination overall.

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