Is There a New COVID Booster to Prevent Against FLiRT Variants?

A lot has happened with COVID-19 vaccines in the past few years, making it difficult to keep up. You’re probably aware on some level, though, that there was an updated vaccine released in the fall. But with all the talk about the new FLiRT variants, it’s only natural to wonder if there will be a new COVID booster in 2024.

First things first: Keeping up with vaccinations is important. COVID-19 immunity, whether it’s from catching COVID or getting vaccinated against the virus, doesn’t last forever, points out John Sellick, D.O., an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at the University at Buffalo. Everyone is different, but research has found that your immunity will start to wane after three to four months.

There’s also this to consider: COVID-19 has morphed since the last vaccine was rolled out, potentially making the currently available shot less effective than it once was. “COVID-19 has spawn all of these variants,” Sellick says. “These things keep evolving.”

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What is the latest COVID vaccine in 2024?

The latest COVID vaccine in 2024 is an updated booster that targets XBB.1.5, a subvariant of Omicron that caused the majority of COVID-19 cases from November 2021-23, Sellick explains.

The booster should also work against many of the newer, currently circulating COVID-19 variants, which are related to XBB.1.5, says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. However, like most vaccines, it’s not a perfect match, so there's a chance you may still become infected with COVID-19, called a breakthrough infection, despite being vaccinated (and this is the case for most jabs that we receive, such as the flu shot).

As a result, an advisory committee to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just voted to recommend that the FDA tell vaccine manufacturers to update their COVID-19 vaccines to make them more effective against the currently-circulating strains of COVID-19 from the JN.1 lineage. (The FLiRT variants are descendants of JN.1.)

These updated vaccines are expected to roll out sometime in fall 2024, says Martin Blaser, M.D., chair of the Henry Rutgers Chair of the Human Microbiome at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. But it’s not clear if these will be boosters or a completely revamped vaccine. “Are these 'new vaccines' or are they boosters of the old vaccines?” he says. “The answer is somewhere in the middle.”

How often should you have a COVID booster?

According to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, everyone ages five and up should get one dose of an updated COVID-19 vaccine, a.k.a. a booster. Children younger than that may need multiple doses, including at least one dose of the updated COVID-19 vaccine, so talk to their pediatrician.

Adults who are 65 and older should get an additional dose of the updated COVID-19 vaccine at least four months after having their previous updated dose, per the CDC. And, if you’re moderately or severely immunocompromised, you may need additional doses.

It’s not clear if those recommendations will change once the new booster is released, though. “It will likely be similar to what we do with influenza — getting an updated shot each year,” Dr. Schaffner says.

Does the COVID booster have side effects?

With the existing vaccine, Dr. Schaffner says the most common side effect is “a bit of a sore arm.” Some people may also develop a headache and “feel out of sorts for a bit,” he says. Potential side effects of the new vaccine will probably be more of the same, Dr. Schaffner says. And overall, experts agree that this is a safe vaccine. “With more than 20 billion vaccine doses administered in the world, substantial side effects have been quite rare,” Dr. Blaser says. “For most people, the benefits far, far exceed the risks.”

Bottom line

The most recent CDC recommendations around a COVID booster were released in the fall of 2023. Those recommendations still stand, although they may change when the updated vaccine is released in the fall, Dr. Schaffner says.

As we wait for the updated 2024 COVID booster, you can still protect yourself if you haven't gotten the booster from 2023. If you did get the booster, you may require an additional shot if you're over the age of 65, or are moderately or severely immunocompromised, to help prevent severe illness. When the new booster is released later this year, it will be important to schedule your appointment for it as well. If you are experiencing any symptoms, such as a sore throat, fever, runny nose or cough, it's important to test yourself immediately.

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