Pfizer COVID booster: FDA approves for kids ages 12-15, shortens waiting period

Everyone 12 and up can now receive the Pfizer COVID-19 booster shot only five months after their initial Pfizer series.

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The Pfizer/BioNTech booster is the same shot as in the initial series of two doses.

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On Monday, the US Food and Drug Administration expanded its eligibility guidelines for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine booster,  authorizing children 12 years and older. The FDA also reduced the waiting time for the Pfizer booster after the initial Pfizer vaccination to five months instead of six.

The updated guidelines come as the omicron variant of COVID-19 surges across the US and the world, and evidence strongly indicates you may need a COVID-19 vaccine booster to have protection against it -- the first two shots alone may not be enough.

"The initial data shows us that the first line of defense with two doses of vaccination might be compromised and three doses of vaccination are required to restore protection," Özlem Türeci, chief medical officer for BioNTech, said during a briefing on Dec. 8.

The new omicron variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has a high number of mutations that have helped the new strain spread more quickly than the delta variant, which took hold in the US over the summer. The vaccines that are approved by the FDA have so far proven to be highly effective in preventing severe illness. People who remain unvaccinated account for nearly all hospitalizations and deaths.

In response to the omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its booster recommendation on Dec. 9, opening up the Pfizer booster shot to teens 16-17. Now, the FDA recommends everyone age 12 and older receive a Pfizer booster shot, five months after their initial Pfizer vaccine, six months after a Moderna series or two months after an initial Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

In December, the CDC endorsed the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices' recommendation preferring the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna over Johnson and Johnson's vaccine. That recommendation also applies to COVID-19 booster shots.

Here's what we know today about Pfizer's vaccine booster and the omicron variant, and who's eligible for the booster shot now. For more on COVID-19, here's what we know about COVID-19 vaccines for kids, and here's the latest guidance on masks and on breakthrough infections. Here's what you should know about getting a free ride from Uber and Lyft to get your vaccine shot -- and what to do if you lose your vaccine card.

Watch this: COVID-19 boosters and the delta variant: What you need to know

FDA allows Pfizer COVID-19 booster for children 12 and older

On Dec. 9 the FDA authorized boosters of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine for teens ages 16 and 17. On Monday, the FDA expanded the authorization of the Pfizer booster to include children 12-15 and reduced the waiting period to five months.

The CDC immediately approved the decision to reduce the waiting period to five months, and is expected to sign off on the FDA recommendation on boosters for kids 12-15 on Wednesday. In its press statement, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky noted, "FDA took action this week to authorize boosters for 12-15-year-olds – and I look forward to ACIP (Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices) meeting on Wednesday to discuss this issue."

Is the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 booster effective against the omicron variant?

Pfizer and BioNTech have said that two doses of their vaccine may not be sufficient to protect against infection with the omicron variant and a booster may be needed to guard against infection and serious illness.

Early data suggests the variant is able to evade some of the protection provided by two doses of the vaccine and a third dose, or booster, of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine restores high levels of protection, the two biopharmaceutical companies said.

Are Pfizer and BioNTech working on a second booster created specifically for the omicron variant?

Both Pfizer and Moderna have said that whether a new COVID-19 vaccine is required specifically for omicron depends on how quickly the new variant is spreading and the severity of the disease the mutated virus causes.

The companies, however, said they are now developing an omicron-adapted vaccine in case it is needed and it could be ready by March, pending regulator authorization.

The companies are also evaluating the length of time their current booster duration is effective. If the duration is too short, a second booster may also be needed.

Should you wait for an omicron-specific booster from Pfizer?

Scientists from Pfizer and BioNTech said in their Dec. 8 press briefing that those who are eligible for a booster should not wait for one designed for omicron and should get the third dose now. Early data shows the current booster provides protection against the omicron variant. 

Moderna said it's now working on a vaccine candidate modified for the new variant, in case it is needed.

Who does the FDA say is eligible for a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine booster?

The new answer: Everyone 12 years of age and older should get a booster shot five months after receiving their second Pfizer shot, six months after a second Moderna vaccine shot or two months after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine shot. The Pfizer vaccine is the only shot available for children under 18.

Does the Pfizer booster shot have side effects?

The CDC reports that side effects from the Pfizer booster are mostly similar to side effects from the first and second doses of Pfizer's vaccine and are generally mild to moderate. The most common symptoms have been fever, headache, fatigue and pain at the site of injection. The CDC recommends exercising the affected arm to reduce pain at the injection site and drinking lots of water to reduce the effects of a fever.

Anyone who had a severe allergic reaction to a Pfizer shot should not receive a booster shot from either of the mRNA vaccines -- Moderna or Pfizer. 

The CDC said as of Nov. 19, 98.2% of those who received the Pfizer vaccine for the first two shots chose to receive a Pfizer booster, with the rest picking a Moderna or Johnson & Johnson booster. Here's more on mixing and matching vaccines.

Where can I get a Pfizer booster shot?

According to White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients, boosters are available at roughly 80,000 places across the country, including over 40,000 local pharmacies. Some 90% of Americans have a vaccine site within 5 miles of where they live, Zients said, and getting a booster shot should be just as easy as getting the first shot. And the booster shot will be free, too. 

You can check Vaccines.gov to see which vaccines are available where or call 800-232-0233 for vaccine information.

Why do you need a Pfizer booster shot at all?

Recent studies show the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine can begin to wane after five or six months and a booster can raise your protection against infection, especially against serious illness. Albert Bourla, the chief executive of Pfizer, told the New York Times he anticipates the effectiveness of a booster to last a year, with annual booster shots possible to prop up immunity.

According to a study in The Lancet, those who received the Pfizer booster shot had a 93% lower risk of being hospitalized, a 92% lower risk of severe disease and an 81% lower risk of death than those who had received their second shot at least five months before.

What about mixing and matching the COVID-19 booster shot?

The CDC said those who qualify for a booster shot can get any of the three available -- a booster from Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson -- no matter which one they received first. The CDC now recommends a preference for the Pfizer and Modern vaccines for boosters as well as initial vaccinations.

When can I get the Pfizer booster shot?

Now, if you're eligible. More than 66 million people in the US have received a booster shot, as of Dec. 29, per the CDC tracker. That's about one-third of Americans who are "fully vaccinated" or about 21% of the public at large.

State and local health officials have started to roll out campaigns to help the public better understand who qualifies, according to The New York Times

Is the Pfizer booster the same as the first two shots?

Yes. According to Pfizer, its COVID-19 booster would be a third jab of the same vaccine you got with the first two doses. 

For more on coronavirus treatments and vaccines, here's what we know about monoclonal antibody treatments, the new federal vaccine mandates and why some people may not want the shot.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.