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The White House May Recommend COVID-19 Booster Shots


The Biden administration seems likely to recommend that Americans who got the Moderna or Pfizer COVID vaccines get booster shots after eight months. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca is following this one. Good morning, Joe.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: This has been a real journey. Last month, the CDC and the FDA said that fully vaccinated people would not need booster shots. And then, last week, they recommended them for people with weakened immune systems. And now it's everyone who got Pfizer and Moderna shots.

PALCA: Yes. Well, one thing to be a little clear about - the third dose for people who had weakened immune systems was simply to get them to a point where their immune systems were showing some response to the vaccine. Those weren't - you don't really think of those as boosters so much as more of a vaccine schedule. But this is - yes, these are boosters. And exactly what the thinking is going on is very sketchy at this point because there has been no formal announcement or plan rolled out or anything like that. This was all reported last night - late last night in The New York Times and Washington Post.

Apparently, over the weekend, a group of health officials from the government got together and they, quote, "coalesced" around this notion that a booster shot after eight months would be a good idea. This is still probably going to require FDA approval. And I have to say, it's a little unusual, if this decision has been made, because so far, all the decisions that the government has made - big decisions about vaccines have been made out in the public. So there have been meetings of expert committees, and public have been able to weigh in. And so that hasn't happened here. It still might. But it does seem a little odd - maybe making the decision and then asking for opinions about it.

KING: OK. So if this decision was made, is it based on evidence that some of the vaccines are losing their effectiveness?

PALCA: Yeah. The administration has been looking at this for a while. Even though they did say that the booster was working just a few days ago, they were letting people know that that could change. For example, here's the president's adviser Anthony Fauci speaking about giving people boosters at a White House news conference last Thursday.


ANTHONY FAUCI: So if the data shows us that, in fact, we do need to do that, we'll be very ready to do it and do it expeditiously.

PALCA: And there are basically two lines of evidence. One is laboratory results, where they've been testing people who have been vaccinated and seeing how - what the levels of antibodies are in their blood to see how effective they would be at preventing the virus from infecting someone in the laboratory, in cells in the laboratory, particularly against some of these new variants that have been emerging. And then there also have been studies from the field of real-world data, for example, in Israel, where a lot of the population has been vaccinated, they've been seeing the efficacy of the vaccine. In other words, the number of people who are protected or the length of people are protected going down so that more people are having what they call breakthrough infections.

KING: OK. So the new guidance, as far as we know, is only for people who got Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which is still millions of people. Who will go first?

PALCA: Well, it seems to be like the first round. It'll be the most vulnerable people first, people in nursing homes and then also front-line health care workers and emergency personnel and then the elderly. And it's about people that are going to need the vaccine and are most vulnerable to getting really sick and possibly dying from COVID-19. And I imagine there'll be three kinds of people who hear this news. One is the group that's very eager to get vaccinated, and they'll be lining up. And apparently, a million people have already figured out a way to get a third dose. Some people will have to be reminded that it's time to get their third dose. And there will be some people who say no way, no third dose, no first dose, no second dose - not for me.

KING: Yes. As you point out, despite all of this, just over 50% of Americans are fully vaccinated. So even if everybody gets their booster shot, we are not out of trouble.

PALCA: You bet.

KING: NPR's Joe Palca. Thanks, Joe.

PALCA: You're welcome, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.