COVID

Dr. Ashish Jha: If you’re boosted, COVID almost definitely won’t kill you. That’s the good news.

The country is more equipped than ever, but how does the newest bivalent booster measure up to its predecessor?

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 25: White House COVID-⁠19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha speaks during a daily news briefing at the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in the White House on October 25, 2022 in Washington, DC. Dr. Jha spoke on the status of COVID-19 in the United States. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Are you vaccinated and boosted? Your risk of dying from COVID-19 is “close to zero,” according to a top White House official — but studies show the newest booster may not be as effective as advertised.

Dr. Ashish Jha, head of the White House COVID task force, said the U.S. has come a long way since the early days of the pandemic when thousands of people were dying daily from the virus.

“If you are up to date with your vaccines and if you get treated if you have a breakthrough infection, your risk of dying from COVID is now close to zero,” Jha told reporters at the White House Tuesday.

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “up to date” means receiving both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, plus the “most recent booster dose recommended for you.” For many, this means the new “bivalent” booster that went into effect Sept. 2. 

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But new studies have shown that the booster, which protects against both the original virus that causes COVID-19 and the omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5., isn’t significantly better than its predecessor. 

“People should realize that the monovalent vaccines that they were getting were already excellent at preventing severe disease, which was the goal,” Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told The Boston Globe. “The hope was that you’d have even better protection against severe disease with the bivalent booster. Given these data, it doesn’t look like that hope is going to be realized.”

One study, conducted by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, compared the immune responses in blood samples from people who received the original booster to people who received its bivalent successor. Both shots protected against BA.5., but the difference between them was “modest and nonsignificant.”

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But according to the data, the bivalent booster is still effective in preventing serious or fatal cases of COVID-19. 

“Both the monovalent and bivalent boosters work,” said Dr. Dan Barouch, who runs Beth Israel’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research and oversaw the study, said in an interview. “But there is no evidence that the bivalent booster works better than the monovalent booster against BA.5.”

Nationally, about 300 people are still dying every day from COVID, according to CDC data — a large decrease from October 2021, when the daily average was about 1,400. Massachusetts has reported 58 confirmed deaths in the week leading up to Oct. 20.

Jha told reporters last week that nationally, 70% of the people dying from the virus are over 75 and aren’t up to date with vaccines and recommended treatments, such as antiviral pill Paxlovid. He said the most recent death count is unacceptable given the options U.S. residents have to manage the virus.

“Treatments which we have available today for free keep people out of the hospital, keep people out of the ICU, prevent the worst outcome at all,” Jha said.

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