Why You Can’t Just Get the Omicron Booster

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) endorsed the use of a COVID booster vaccine that specifically targets Omicron’s BA.4 and BA.5 variants. The goal of the Omicron booster is to help restore protection that has faded since your last COVID-19 vaccine, and to specifically target the variants that are widely circulating in the U.S. right now.

But, while the Omicron booster is designed to protect against the dominant variants, you can’t actually get it unless you’ve already been vaccinated against COVID-19. Confused? Let’s get to it.

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Why you can’t get the Omicron booster if you haven’t been vaccinated against COVID yet?

The CDC currently recommends that people stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccines by getting your primary COVID-19 vaccine (i.e. two shots of the Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, or Novavax vaccine, or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine if you won’t get the others).

Booster shots are not authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for children aged six months through four years. However, those aged five and up should get a booster dose anywhere from eight weeks to five months after their first vaccination series, depending on their age and which vaccine they originally received.

Protection from your original COVID-19 series wanes over time, and a booster can help restore that protection, along with provide broader protection against newer variants, the CDC explains. However, a booster dose isn’t designed to take the place of the original vaccination series.

“It’s very simple: The studies were not done on the Omicron booster as a primary vaccination series,” says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. Because of this, the booster is only authorized by the FDA as an additional shot—not the main vaccine, he says.

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The dosage is also different for the booster vs. original vaccination series, points out Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “The booster is of a lower dose and designed to augment protection after the primary vaccine series,” he says. “It builds on prior immunity and was not designed to be stand-alone.” It’s also “unclear” how much protection you’d get from the Omicron booster without going through the primary vaccination series first, he says.

Experts say you should still get your COVID vaccine

While having had COVID-19 can provide you with some protection from the virus in the future, the CDC still urges people who have had the virus to get vaccinated against it.

Research has found that this provides additional protection, and that people who have had COVID-19 and don’t get vaccinated are more likely to get the virus again than those who got the shots after they recovered.

The CDC says that people may consider waiting to get their next vaccine dose by three months from when their symptoms started or when they had a positive test, since reinfection is less likely in the weeks and months right after you were infected. “We really don’t know how long your protection from prior infection will be, but infection with the Alpha and Delta variants offer protection for six to nine months,” says Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York. With Omicron, though, it’s thought that protection from infection lasts a much shorter time. “Omicron has changed things,” Dr. Russo says.

If you’ve made the decision to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Dr. Adalja says you shouldn’t worry that you won’t be protected against Omicron without the booster, even though you’ve probably heard that the variant is more likely to partially evade protection from the primary vaccination series. “People who are freshly vaccinated with the primary series will likely have some protection against Omicron infection in the weeks post vaccination when antibody levels are high,” he says. “They, of course, would be protected against what matters most—severe disease.”

Ultimately, “it’s never too late to get vaccinated,” Dr. Russo says, noting that it’s better to do it sooner rather than later. “It’s particularly important to get vaccinated with the anticipated increase in cases this winter,” he says.

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