With Infectious Disease Specialist Manuel Gordillo, MD
As we approach another winter and another flu season, says Manuel Gordillo, MD, it’s important to remember that COVID-19 has not disappeared.
“There's a tendency now to start saying that we're moving on, we are getting past the pandemic, the pandemic is over,” he says. “But the virus has other ideas.”
Since the pandemic began, the death toll in the United States has surpassed one million, amounting to more American deaths than in all the wars it has fought since World War I—and a historic drop in average life expectancy. “The scope of this pandemic is hard to fathom,” Dr. Gordillo says. “You can read the numbers, but it's very difficult to understand. Our minds are not used to processing these massive numbers.”
COVID’s many mutations and the resulting variants, from Alpha and Delta to multiple Omicron strains, have not helped, spiking transmission rates and driving up the death toll.
But with the newly FDA-approved bivalent booster vaccines, Dr. Gordillo hopes this winter might look a little different.
What Is A Bivalent Booster Vaccine?
The bivalent booster vaccines made by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech use the same mRNA technology that made previous vaccines so effective, but are aimed at multiple COVID variants at the same time.
So while previous vaccines contained a little piece of messenger RNA that delivered instructions to your immune system, letting it know how to identify and destroy the original COVID-19 strain, these bivalent boosters carry multiple RNA messages for your immune system, delivering instructions on how to fight off multiple strains of COVID-19.
More specifically, the bivalent boosters approved this year provide immunity against the original COVID-19 strain and both the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron sub-variants, because those are the variants that have been dominating the viral landscape and spreading the most.
The idea, Dr. Gordillo says, is similar to how researchers and healthcare workers fight the flu each year. “We have the technology to modify the vaccine based on the variant that is most prevalent,” he says. “And we’re going to use the same strategy that we use every year for influenza, where we try to anticipate which variants are going to be dominant, and those are going to be in the vaccine.”
Bivalent Booster FAQs
with Dr. Gordillo
Is it safe to get my flu shot and my booster shot at the same time?
Yes, you can get the COVID vaccine and the flu vaccine at the same time. And I think it would be a wise move. If we give the same number of vaccinations for COVID as we do for flu, we can prevent more than 10,000 deaths in the United States and about 130,000 hospitalizations.
That would be one simple way to protect yourself—when you go get your flu vaccine, get the COVID vaccine.
Does everyone need this booster?
The over-65, the immunocompromised, people who have other chronic disease should be looking to get the new booster as soon as possible.
But also ask yourself, do you live with somebody who is high risk? Are you in contact with people who are at high risk, like healthcare workers? Do you have an event that is crucial in your life coming up, like a wedding?
You should go ahead and get your vaccine as soon as you can.
Can I get my booster if I just had COVID?
If you had an infection recently, you probably want to wait three months before you get your vaccine, because it gives your immune system some time to mature your response to the real virus.
How long do I have to wait between boosters?
For most people who got their last booster more than five months ago, it would be good time to consider getting this new booster. People who have had previous COVID-19 booster shots can get the bivalent booster as soon as two months after their last shot, or wait a few months longer, depending on the risk factors.
What is the likelihood of another COVID wave later in the year? How big would it be?
Most experts say that towards the end of the year or the beginning of next year, in the winter, that's probably when the next wave will happen. Nobody knows the size of the wave. There are so many factors to consider, the biggest one being the virus itself. If it mutates and it produces another vaccine-evading or severe disease-causing variant, that's going to be the biggest factor. Right now we don't see anything out there in the world that would fit that bill. But this can happen very quickly. You will remember last Thanksgiving—nobody knew about Omicron and all of a sudden it hit us like a ton of bricks.
Can children get this new booster?
Right now, the Pfizer vaccine, this bivalent booster, is only recommended for those 12 and over. And Moderna’s version of the bivalent vaccine is not recommended for kids, only for adults 18 and over. So for kids under 12, there's no bivalent vaccine. There may be in the future, for the five to 12 age-group, but nothing has been approved yet.
But children are still eligible for the older boosters, using the previous vaccines?
What does the future of COVID vaccines look like?
Our goal would be to develop something called the pan-coronavirus vaccine, which would be a vaccine for all coronaviruses. But this is very much in the future. We still don't have the technology to get us there, where we can produce a vaccine that is going to be effective for all future variants. Immunologists, virologists, vaccinologists say that maybe we're about three to five years away from that.
Written by Sarasota Memorial copywriter Philip Lederer, MA, who crafts a variety of external communications for the healthcare system. SMH’s in-house wordsmith, Lederer earned his Master’s degree in Public Administration and Political Philosophy from Morehead State University, KY.