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As COVID-19 Cases Rise, Biden's Original Booster Strategy Has Slowed

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is good news this morning on the vaccine front. Pfizer-BioNTech says its vaccine is safe and effective in children aged 5 to 11. The news comes at a critical time. The U.S. is averaging about 140,000 new cases of the coronavirus every day. About 1,500 people are dying every day from the virus. Last month, the administration said a widespread booster rollout could start as early as today. But that plan has been slowed down. We're going to talk with Dr. Anthony Fauci in a moment about the possibility of booster shots.

But first we turn to NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Parents of younger children, myself included, have been waiting on this news a long time. Tell us more.

AUBREY: That's right. The company is reporting that the vaccine was safe, well-tolerated, that it showed, quote, "robust neutralizing antibody responses," which basically means it could fend off the virus. Kids got a smaller dose - one-third of that given to adults and older kids. The company says the side effects were generally comparable to those seen with 16- to 25-year-olds. And Pfizer says it does plan to submit its findings to the FDA with urgency.

Now, results in children under 5 years of age are expected as soon as later this year. And FDA officials have said that they will let the science and data guide them there but that they hope to have pediatric COVID-19 vaccines available in the coming months. And this news that Pfizer will submit its data, it really fits with the timeline we've been hearing for a while, that it is possible that the vaccine could be authorized for 5 to 11 year olds by late fall.

MARTIN: Late fall - Halloween maybe - (laughter) fingers crossed.

AUBREY: (Laughter) That would be nice.

MARTIN: So let's pivot over to boosters. We're expecting some decisions about this this week, right?

AUBREY: That's right. The FDA is expected to announce a decision any time now on a Pfizer booster. There had been some concern that the Biden administration strategy was too - kind of getting ahead of the evidence on boosters. And that was reflected in the votes on Friday, when advisers to the FDA said, look, there's just not enough evidence yet to support boosters for everyone. But they did approve boosters for people at high risk and those 65 and up.

The agency does typically follow the advisers' recommendations. And the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is scheduled to meet Wednesday. Now, the case for a booster, Rachel, is that it helps to restore waning immunity. And new data released Friday by the CDC indicates that protection against serious illness has begun to diminish.

MARTIN: So that's a bit harrowing. Do we know what that means when you say diminished - by how much?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, scientists analyzed cases of adults who were hospitalized with COVID around the country - thousands of cases. They found that the Pfizer vaccine had fallen to about 77% effective against hospitalization. That's down from 91% in early months. Now, these patients tended to be older people. But interestingly, there appeared to be no decrease in protection for those who got the Moderna vaccine. It's still about 92% or 93% effective against hospitalization.

I spoke to Dr. Marc Boom - he is CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital - about what might explain this.

MARC BOOM: Probably the most plausible is simply dosing, which - you know, the Moderna is a significantly higher dose of mRNA than Pfizer. There may be something to do with dosing interval as well. But the bottom line is all three are still highly effective. Now it's a matter of shoring back up that immunity.

AUBREY: And he says if the FDA does approve boosters this week for people 65 and up and those at high risk, his hospital is ready.

BOOM: We've already been giving a number of boosters to immunocompromised individuals and individuals with a prescription. So as soon as this is authorized, we'll be giving many, many boosters, I'm quite certain.

MARTIN: But do we understand, Allison, why the advisers to the FDA voted against booster shots for the general population?

AUBREY: You know, as I listen to the advisers deliberate on Friday, many seem to conclude that it's just premature - not enough data yet. A few questioned whether it would be better to wait for boosters tailored to the delta variant or other new variants.

Adviser Dr. Cody Meissner brought up the issue of myocarditis, heart inflammation, particularly in young men, following vaccination.

CODY MEISSNER: We really don't know what's going to happen after a third dose. Myocarditis may be less common, or it could be more common. We understand so little about the pathogenesis that it seems to me we need to know that data before going forward.

AUBREY: Before a decision is made, he argues.

MARTIN: So it's possible that a booster may be recommended for a wider group of people, just not now.

AUBREY: Absolutely, especially as there is more data. I mean, several FDA advisers indicated that ultimately there very well may be boosters for everyone vaccinated. But at this point, they said it's just too early to make that decision. So basically, stay tuned. It's a very fluid situation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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