What’s a Bivalent Booster, and Why You Should Get It

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Hello! It’s been awhile, because I had to take a week off due to an unprecedented heat wave driving temperatures in the Bay Area over 100 degrees Farenheit for an entire week – an event that is SO unprecedented that a lot of people, myself included, don’t have air conditioning because we haven’t needed it for the past 300 years. Thanks Boomers, what an excellent planet you’ve left us. This is fun!

Anyway, that’s all in the distant past and now we can officially enter the greatest season: autumn, aka spooky season, aka the time of year when I can more easily buy the decorations I leave around my house all year long. And this year, it’s not JUST biologically incongruent frog skeletons and eyeball test tubes that I’m looking forward to: it’s also time for a BRAND NEW COVID BOOSTER!

I know, I have unique interests. But really, I’ve been looking forward to this for so long: a booster shot that targets the current mutation of SARS-CoV-2, which I have long hoped would allow me to fully relax and do things like attend conventions or sit inside a smoky room to eat, drink, and play poker. Seriously, I know it’s stupid but I miss Vegas so much.

I was SO looking forward to these boosters that I accidentally forgot the lessons I thought I learned in late 2020: don’t get your hopes up. We aren’t going to get back to normal. Normal is dead. Long live normal.

So yeah, this video, unfortunately, will not be quite as celebratory as I would have liked. But first, the good news: yes, the new booster shots are now available here in the United States and they will probably keep you safe this fall and winter when COVID is expected to spike again. You can find out where to get yours by visiting and putting in your zip code. Go! Do it now!

This is a “bivalent” booster, which means that it’s actually like two shots in one: both the Pfizer and Moderna versions will contain instructions for your immune system to defend you from the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 AND the current mutations, known as BA.4 and BA.5 omicron. For those of you in Europe and Canada, your booster will cover the original strain and the BA.1 omicron variant, because there’s more data on that from human trials. The US is hoping that despite having less data on BA.4 and 5, targeting them might provide more protection than targeting BA.1.

That said, none of this is new or scary. Yes, the people who have been scared of the vaccines for the past two years will probably continue to be scared of these boosters, and they will probably claim that there’s not enough research and it’s dangerous and bla bla bla. They’re wrong: bivalent vaccines have been around for awhile – the HPV vaccine covers several mutations, and researchers even developed a 9-valent shot in 2015. They are safe and effective.

But that brings me to the not great news: the data on the human trials for the European and Canadian vaccines aren’t great. Yes, this booster should perform better than the original boosters, and yes it should prevent severe illness and death, but it’s just NOT the time machine that will take us back to 2019 for a big ol’ do-over. The BA.1 bivalent boosters just aren’t wowing researchers, and we already know that a significant portion of the population will not get boosted at all. That means the virus is going to continue to mutate in the unvaccinated population, it means that it will mutate in unpredictable ways, and occasionally those mutations will find ways to get past the vaccines.

Combine that with the fact that many governments, including my own here in the US, have simply given up. Last week, Anthony Fauci gave a briefing at the White House suggesting that we are ready to institute an annual COVID vaccine, like that of the current influenza vaccine schedule. Let’s be clear: we are in no way ready for that.

The flu vaccine, first of all, varies in effectiveness by year but the aim is usually to hit about 40%. That’s enough to save the lives of many elderly and immunocompromised people but it’s not enough to, say, allow those people to live “normal” lives during flu season. And to hit that 40%, researchers have a number of things going in their favor: the flu is seasonal, occurring reliably in the winter months; the flu has been studied for decades; the flu evolves in a ladder-like fashion that enables researchers to take a good, educated guess as to how it will evolve in the future.

As Dr. Katelyn Jetalina points out in her excellent newsletter, COVID has none of those traits. While the flu vaccine only needs to get you through the next few months, COVID is with us year-round, so a vaccine that wears out in six months is not good enough. It also mutates four times faster than the flu and in an unpredictable way, meaning researchers can’t easily guess what it’s going to do next.

So to wrap up, the boosters probably aren’t great (but you should still get one) and we are quite a ways off from annual COVID vaccines. But I’ll end with some more good news: there are currently more than a dozen nasal vaccines in development, which will directly target your mucus. The mucus in your nose and throat are your immune system’s first line of defense against infections, so a vaccine that targets it won’t just prevent severe illness and death but also infection itself. There are also vaccines in development that hope to be mutation-proof, fighting all COVID strains at once.

Most recently I’ve been hearing about several different groups of researchers who are developing universal coronavirus antibodies–it’s not a vaccine, because antibodies only last a short period of time, but it IS a promising new treatment that could help patients recover from a particularly bad illness. One of those groups of researchers is at Boston Children’s Hospital, by the way, which is still getting bomb threats from transphobes who are angry the hospital provides gender-affirming care. So that’s a fun way that our various dystopias are interacting.

Anyway, “normal” may no longer be within reach, but a new, not so horrible normal is. So please get your booster, continue wearing a mask inside public spaces, and keep yourself and those around you as healthy as possible so we can all enjoy spooky season together.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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