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COVID Booster Shots Could Be Out For The Public By Fall. Here's How It Would Work

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Federal officials are signaling that COVID-19 booster shots for the general population could be coming as early as this fall. Now, very few details so far on this - NPR health reporter Pien Huang is here to talk about what we do know.

Hi, Pien.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So this all started coming out late last night, I guess - that the White House plans to recommend booster shots, meaning a third dose of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, and that it could start this fall. How close are we?

HUANG: There are a few steps to clear. The FDA would need to authorize a third shot of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for general use, and then the CDC would need to recommend it. Claire Hannan, head of the Association of Immunization Managers, says the plans are just not clear at the moment.

CLAIRE HANNAN: A little confused and waiting for more details - you know, there's just so many uncertainties around how it's going to work and, you know, how exactly we're going to do it.

HUANG: She says it would be different from the initial rollout, hopefully a lot smoother.

KELLY: Yeah.

HUANG: There will be fewer mass vaccination sites, more people getting shots from their local pharmacies, workplaces, doctors. In nursing homes, it's not likely that the government will send CVS and Walgreens back to give them a third shot, so it's not clear how this important group will be getting boosters. But the White House and the CDC have promised more information tomorrow, so hopefully it will become clear soon.

KELLY: Now, where is the science on this - because the CDC, as I'm recalling, just last week was saying more evidence for boosters is still needed?

HUANG: Yeah, the science, at least what's been publicly shared, is not, so far, conclusive. And the most compelling information comes from Israel, where around 80% of adults are fully vaccinated, mostly with the Pfizer vaccine. And they've been seeing a trend where protection against getting infected may wear off after a few months. But what it does not show is big increases in hospitalizations and deaths, so vaccinated people are still mostly safe from getting severely ill. Still, Dr. Eric Topol - he's a physician-researcher at Scripps Research - he says that in the U.S., breakthrough infections have started happening in health care workers vaccinated back in December and January. And while most were not hospitalized, some have needed urgent treatment.

ERIC TOPOL: So it's not like a trivial thing to get sick. And then there's long COVID, and there's transmission from vaccinated people to others. So it's good to get us protected back to where we were.

HUANG: That's one of the arguments for a booster shot right now.

KELLY: And what are the arguments against? Why wouldn't it be a good idea to get one?

HUANG: Well, they mainly fall into two categories. People question whether it will work to slow down the virus and also whether it's the best use of a limited resource. Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease doctor at NYU, does not think that the evidence supports giving everybody boosters now. She says we should use the tools that we already have.

CELINE GOUNDER: What is going to protect people better? Is it giving additional doses to people who've already been vaccinated or getting people who are not yet vaccinated vaccinated? It's actually the latter because that is going to reduce the amount of virus in the community, which helps protect not just that person being vaccinated, but it also protects you.

HUANG: Gounder points out that other populations, such as children under 12, may soon be eligible for vaccines. It might make sense to focus the vaccine supply there. And of course, the rest of the world is in dire need of vaccines as well. The World Health Organization has criticized countries for giving booster shots when front-line health care workers and many poor countries still haven't been vaccinated.

KELLY: NPR's Pien Huang reporting there on whether we may be headed for booster shots this autumn.

Thank you very much, Pien.

HUANG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.