Key Takeaways

  • The new COVID-19 bivalent boosters protect against both the original virus strain and the Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5.

  • Like previous versions, the updated boosters have been shown to offer strong protection against severe illness, hospitalization, and death—particularly important for older adults who are at highest risk.

  • The CDC recommends most people receive the new, single-dose booster at least two months following their most recent COVID-19 vaccine.

Chances are you’re hearing and reading about the bivalent COVID booster.  But what exactly is it—and who should get it? Here’s everything you need to know about the latest COVID-19 vaccine booster.

What is the COVID-19 bivalent vaccine booster?

First, it helps to understand a bit about viruses. They tend to mutate (change) over time, resulting in new versions of the virus called variants. The original virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) has changed rapidly since the pandemic began, resulting in a number of new variants. One of these is Omicron, which appeared in the U.S. toward the end of 2021 and spread rapidly to become the dominant COVID strain. Omicron has two sub-variants, BA.4 and BA.5, found to be especially contagious and good at outsmarting the human immune system.

Previous boosters of the COVID vaccine, called monovalent boosters, were specially designed to protect against the original COVID-19 virus. They offered a degree of protection against Omicron, too, but not enough.

Pfizer and Moderna, manufacturers of the original COVID-19 vaccines, have created new, single-dose bivalent COVID-19 boosters that have been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These boosters became available on September 2, 2022 for people age 12 and older and on October 12, 2022 for children age 5 to 11.

The most recent boosters are called bivalent boosters because they protect against both the original virus strain that causes COVID-19 and the Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5. What about bivalent booster efficacy? Like previous boosters and the original vaccine, the bivalent versions have been shown to offer strong protection against severe COVID-19, hospitalization, and death.

Who should get the new bivalent booster?

The CDC advises the Pfizer-BioNTech bivalent booster for anyone age 5 or older who received a primary COVID-19 vaccination or booster shot at least two months ago. People age 6 or older can get the Moderna bivalent booster if it has been at least two months since their last COVID-19 vaccination.

Note that the minimum wait time set by the FDA is two months. But some health experts suggest it might be better to wait longer in between COVID-19 boosters (up to 6 months). This is because if you’ve already had a booster, another shot soon after won’t offer much additional benefit.

You must have completed your primary series of COVID-19 vaccination to get the updated booster. See the CDC's guidance on how to complete your primary COVID-19 vaccination series.

Use the CDC’s online tool to see when and if you’re eligible for one or more COVID-19 boosters.

Which bivalent booster is better?

There is no meaningful difference between the two newly authorized booster shots, so you should get the first one that is available to you. Also, the updated booster shot you receive does not have to be from the same manufacturer that made your primary monovalent vaccine or previous monovalent booster. For example, if your initial COVID-19 vaccine or booster was from Moderna, it’s ok to get the Pfizer-BioNTech bivalent booster.

Should I get the bivalent booster if I recently had COVID-19?

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine after having a COVID-19 infection gives you added protection against the virus. If you were recently sick with COVID-19, you may consider waiting 90 days from when your symptoms began (or when you first had a positive test) before getting the bivalent booster. If you received monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma while sick with COVID-19, you do not need to wait to get a booster.

Does the bivalent booster have side effects?

Side effects for the bivalent booster series seem to be similar to the side effects experienced with the monovalent COVID-19 boosters. Potential side effects include:

  • Pain, redness, and swelling at the injection site
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle and joint pain

You may have similar, worse, or milder side effects compared to your previous COVID-19 vaccinations. Keep in mind that side effects are a normal, natural immune response to a vaccine and should resolve within 24 to 48 hours.

Can I get my flu shot and bivalent booster at the same time?

Yes. The majority of people who get their COVID-19 booster at the same time as other vaccinations (like seasonal flu) do not experience more severe side effects. However, as a precaution, you should plan to not feel well for a day or two afterwards.

How do I get the new bivalent COVID-19 booster?

Wondering how to get a bivalent booster appointment near you? The bivalent shot is now widely offered by CVS, Walmart, Walgreens, local pharmacies, and other establishments. Follow these steps to find a location near you:

  1. Visit Vaccines.gov.
  2. Enter your 5-digit ZIP code.
  3. Under “Updated vaccines,” check off either "Moderna newly authorized bivalent,” "Pfizer-BioNTech newly authorized bivalent," or both (if you don’t have a preference). Remember, it does not matter if you "match" your previous vaccines with the new booster.
  4. Click “Search for COVID-19 Vaccines."

On the search results page, you'll see a list of local providers, with the provider closest to you appearing at the top. Click "Book Appointment" to start setting up your bivalent booster appointment. You may be able to schedule other vaccinations you need at the same appointment, saving you time.

Is a COVID-19 booster really necessary?

Boosters are recommended by the CDC for most people. They're a powerful tool for protecting yourself from getting severely ill or dying from COVID-19. Your decision to get the bivalent booster shot should be based on your health status as well as that of the people around you. 

Older adults, people who are immunocompromised, and those with chronic illness like heart disease and diabetes are particularly at risk for COVID-19 illness, hospitalization, and death. The bivalent booster provides necessary protection against the latest and highly contagious Omicron variants.

Thomas Murray, MD, PhD, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist, said in a recent Yale Medicine article: "If you haven’t been boosted in the last couple of months, this is a great opportunity to be better protected.”