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The federal government moves closer to expanding booster shots for everyone

NOEL KING, HOST:

The FDA this morning authorized COVID booster shots for all vaccinated Americans 18 and older. And the CDC, which has the final say, expects its advisers to weigh in on boosters this afternoon. Earlier today, I talked to NPR's Will Stone.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Basically, the goal is to shore up immunity as much as we can. It's become clear that protection from the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines does wear off to some degree over time. The biggest concern with this waning immunity is obviously to keep people from being hospitalized and dying. And the people who are at highest risk for that, you know, those over 65 or with underlying medical conditions, they already qualify for a booster. The younger and healthy people who aren't yet eligible, they're much less likely to end up in the hospital with a serious breakthrough case. But they still can benefit from a booster. I spoke to Dr. Peter Hotez about this. He's at Baylor College of Medicine, and he's a vocal proponent of boosters.

PETER HOTEZ: Now we have data from Israel showing by giving that third immunization, you not only can prevent waning immunity in terms of hospitalizations but actually even halt infection and potentially transmission as well. So this is a welcome development.

STONE: Hotez says the data from Israel supports giving boosters to the broader adult population here in the U.S. And there are also the results of a Pfizer study that show a strong response to the booster, and that's across all age groups.

KING: So it sounds like the takeaway is not every adult absolutely needs a booster, but they're not going to hurt, and they can be beneficial.

STONE: Exactly. Let's be clear - most people who are landing in the hospital with COVID are unvaccinated, but we are definitely having more breakthrough infections in the U.S. It's hard to say how many because this isn't tracked well on a national level. In states that do follow this, like Michigan and Washington, it's about 30% of recent infections. And experts like Anne Rimoin, who's at UCLA, are also looking at the surge in Europe, where countries tend to be better vaccinated than the U.S.

ANNE RIMOIN: We have to throw everything at this that we can. People are going indoors. It's a holiday season. These are all things that really lead to increasing cases. And all we have to do is look to Europe to see what's in store for us.

STONE: So Rimoin's point is that getting a booster is not only about whether you are vulnerable; it's also about protecting those around you.

KING: And we know that cases in this country are rising again, at least in some parts. The Midwest is seeing another surge. Is the idea that boosters will slow that down?

STONE: Yeah. Some epidemiologists think it can make a big difference. Now, that doesn't mean boosters alone can stop a surge in the U.S. We still have tens of millions of people who don't want to be vaccinated at all. I spoke to Dr. Nahid Bhadelia at Boston University about this.

NAHID BHADELIA: The biggest public health impact is still going to be first doses. However, just because first doses are more useful than boosters, I don't think that's the case against boosters. It is more that we need to be realistic about what we're expecting boosters to do.

STONE: She says what's different now is that we do have more safety data on boosters for younger people, and that looks reassuring. One issue that will come up at today's hearing probably is myocarditis. That's a heart inflammation, which is rare. And it's worth pointing out that the risk of heart problems with COVID is much higher than from a vaccination.

KING: So what's the timeline for the CDC to make a formal decision on this, Will?

STONE: Well, after the CDC advisers make their recommendation, then it's up to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky to make the final decision, and that could happen later today.

KING: NPR's Will Stone. Thanks for this, Will.

STONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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