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COVID-19 Booster Shots Could Be Out For The Public By Fall

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden could announce as early as today that anybody who received the Pfizer or Moderna COVID vaccines should get a third shot eight months after the second dose. Just a month ago, federal health officials were saying that most fully vaccinated people would not yet need a third vaccination. But then last week, they recommended booster shots for people with weak immune systems, and now perhaps the recommendations will change again. We'll discuss this with Dr. Saad Omer, the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health. Welcome to the program, sir.

SAAD OMER: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: I assume a change like this would have to be driven by evidence, so what are health authorities learning that they didn't know before?

OMER: Well, we have news reports that one of the drivers is the data coming out of Israel. So what these data seem to show is that early vaccine recipients now have lower effectiveness of the vaccine. There's also reports that the administration is looking at some U.S. data, including some CDC unpublished data. But there are a couple of caveats there because, you know, the Israeli data, while useful, is not peer reviewed, and there are a few quirks in that data because the vaccine was not delivered uniformly to different age groups or different demographic groups. For example, those who received the vaccine earlier on, for whom a lot of months have passed, were more sick and were high risk anyways. On the other hand, the unvaccinated are younger and not so, you know, high risk and so on, so forth.

So there needs to be some statistical adjustment, et cetera, that needs to happen. But the crude data seems to show that the recipients that received early are - have lower effectiveness. And a lot of us are also looking forward to seeing the CDC data that the administration seemed to be looking at while making up its mind.

INSKEEP: I think a lot of people - we've all heard anecdotal evidence of people who've decided just to be safe, they're going to use whatever means they can to get their own booster shot, to get an extra dose of vaccine. Is there an argument for just saying, let's just be safe and give people a third shot?

OMER: Well, so there is a process for these recommendations, and I would recommend people wait for that process to unfold. I hope, one way or another, that process happens on the sooner side. And just to elaborate on that, in this country, we have a - you know, in addition to FDA authorization, often, we have what's called the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which is a CDC group. It's an external advisory group to the CDC director that evaluates all the evidence in the open. So they're subject to open meeting requirements. So not only the data are reviewed openly, but the rationale is also discussed. And why that is important is that then, you know, everyone, including the experts, can evaluate the data and understand the rationale, why this is happening. And friends from the U.S. government tell me that there is a lot of support for going through that process, and I hope that that process is followed for the reasons I described.

INSKEEP: Now, I mentioned that we're talking here - we appear to be talking here - the announcement - any announcement hasn't been made yet. We appear to be talking about Pfizer and Moderna. Why would there not be a recommendation for an extra shot for people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

OMER: So one reason is that the data that has come out so far from Israel, where the focus was on the Pfizer vaccine, and even from a lot of the U.S. data because most of the vaccines that were delivered in this country were mRNA vaccines, meaning the Pfizer and the Moderna shots...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

OMER: ...Those data are more available. But I do hope that some recommendation will come out for the J&J shot. As a scientist, I think there are a lot of questions the public has, et cetera. But I hope there is a focus on that as well.

INSKEEP: Dr. Omer, thanks very much for your insights. Really appreciate it.

OMER: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: Saad Omer is director of the Yale Institute for Global Health. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.