Kimberly McNally of El Paso receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a Midland CVS pharmacy in 2021. (Photo courtesy of Tim McNally)

Update, Oct. 10, 10:15 a.m.: This story has been updated with comment from the city of El Paso.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the updated Novavax vaccine on Tuesday, allowing a new COVID-19 vaccine to enter the market.

Unlike the updated Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines released last month, which use mRNA formulas, the Novavax vaccine uses a traditional protein formula. In response to the proteins, the immune system creates antibodies and white blood cells to defend the body against the COVID-19 virus.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use messenger RNA, which instructs the cell to make proteins found on the COVID-19 virus, which then triggers the immune system to create antibodies. The mRNA in the vaccine is not the same as DNA. It does not enter the nucleus of the cell, where DNA is stored, and cannot alter human DNA.

While both mRNA-based and protein-based technology protect against COVID-19, the Novavax vaccine offers an alternative option to the more well-known and widely distributed mRNA vaccines.

“You should get the first vaccine available to you,” said Nick Spinelli, a spokesperson for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. “There is no preferential recommendation for the use of any one COVID-19 vaccine over another when more than one licensed or authorized, recommended, and age-appropriate vaccine is available.”

How does the updated COVID-19 vaccine differ from past vaccines?

Separate studies show that all three updated vaccines approved in the United States – Novavax, Pfizer and Moderna – can offer protection against recent virus strains, including XBB.1.5 and the dominant EG.5, also known as “eris.” Both are sub variants of omicron.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus mutates over time. Similar to the flu shot, which is reformulated every season to target new strains of influenza in circulation, the updated COVID-19 vaccines also target newer strains.

Who is eligible for the Novavax vaccine?

The FDA states the updated Novavax vaccine, also referred to as Adjuvanted (2023-2024 Formula), is authorized for people ages 12 and up who have never been vaccinated or previously been vaccinated with:

A woman is vaccinated against COVID-19 at The Hospitals of Providence Transmountain Campus in March 2021. (Photo courtesy of The Hospitals of Providence)

Those who are immunocompromised can get additional doses of the Novavax vaccine.

“Vaccination also reduces the likelihood of getting Long COVID,” Spinelli said. “If you have not received a COVID-19 vaccine in the past two months, or had a COVID-19 infection in the last three months, you can get an updated vaccine now to protect yourself this fall and winter.”

Where can I get the Novavax vaccine in El Paso?

Pharmacies began ordering the updated Novavax vaccine after it was approved on Tuesday. People can go online to to find a pharmacy near them that offers the Novavax vaccine, but should also call to confirm. 

The website also indicates whether the pharmacy is part of the CDC’s Bridge Access Program, which provides vaccines at no cost to people who do not have health insurance or whose insurance requires a co-pay. Most commercial health insurances, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, cover COVID-19 vaccines.

Immunize El Paso will not order the updated Novavax vaccine because of low demand for the original Novavax vaccine, said spokesperson Cristina Rodda. The clinics offer the updated Pfizer vaccine for people ages six months and up. The nonprofit refers people who do not have health insurance to El Paso’s government-run clinics for free COVID-19 vaccines.

El Paso’s community health clinics will receive the updated Pfizer and Moderna vaccines from the Texas Department of State Health Services, but the 2023-2024 Novavax vaccine is not available to order from the state, said city spokesperson Laura Cruz-Acosta. As of Tuesday morning, the city’s website says “New COVID Vaccines coming soon.”

The new Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, along with flu shots, are available at most common pharmacies, including CVS, Walgreens and Walmart. People can also order free COVID-19 home test kits online from the federal government.

Priscilla Totiyapungprasert is a health reporter at El Paso Matters and Report for America corp member. She previously covered food and environment at The Arizona Republic. You can follow her on social...