Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy On Variants, Boosters And Vaccine Mandates : Consider This from NPR More than half of U.S. adults have been fully vaccinated, and case rates are at their lowest point since the pandemic began. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the future of the pandemic. Questions about variants, vaccine booster shots and the idea of vaccine mandates in schools or publicly-funded universities.

We had a chance to put some of the questions — including ones from you — to the nation's top doctor, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, in an interview conducted on Twitter Spaces, a new platform for live audio conversations on Twitter. To participate in future Twitter Spaces conversations, follow us on Twitter @nprAudie and @npratc. You can find our episodes on Twitter and Facebook using the hashtag #NPRConsiderThis.

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Listener Q&A: Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy On Variants, Boosters And Vax Mandates

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Listener Q&A: Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy On Variants, Boosters And Vax Mandates

Listener Q&A: Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy On Variants, Boosters And Vax Mandates

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There are so many variants in so many places, the World Health Organization has started using Greek letters to keep them straight. One of the latest and most concerning is called the Delta variant. It originated in India, and it's now the dominant form of infection in the U.K., where it accounts for more than 60% of all cases and is driving surges in some parts of the country.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: It's essentially taking over. We cannot let that happen in the United States.

CORNISH: Dr. Anthony Fauci said this week the Delta variant may be associated with more severe disease and a higher risk of hospitalization. And in the U.K....

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FAUCI: Transmission is peaking in the younger group of 12 to 20-year-olds.

CORNISH: Here in the U.S., the Delta variant accounts for more than 6% of cases. Of course, the question you might have is, do vaccines work against it?

VIVEK MURTHY: The good news is the data that we have tells us that the vaccines we have in the United States are effective against the variants circulating in the United States. That's good news. The key, though - and this is really important - is that you need to get both doses.

CORNISH: Surgeon General Vivek Murthy pointed us to a recent study that showed a single dose of Pfizer was only 33% effective against the Delta variant - two doses, 88% effective. Researchers are still studying the single-dose J&J shot, but it's been shown to hold up against other variants.

MURTHY: So get both doses. It makes a big difference against these variants.

CORNISH: Coming up, the nation's top doctor answers more of your questions about how long vaccine protection lasts...

AMY HILL: Will there be booster shots available?

CORNISH: ...When young kids could get shots...

CHRISTINE STERN: Are they carriers?

CORNISH: ...And what the U.S. is doing to prevent variants from emerging in the first place.

JURGEN: When we Americans will feel safe when it comes to international travels and global pandemic management?

CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish. It's Wednesday, June 9.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. Here are some numbers to get excited about. In the U.S., more than half the eligible population - that's people 12 and older - are fully vaccinated. And that is correlated with daily COVID cases falling to their lowest point since the pandemic began, barely 13,000 a day. By comparison, our daily average was 250,000 cases, and that was just five months ago. But Vivek Murthy told us there's a lot of work left to do in order to reach the Biden administration's goal of vaccinating 70% of Americans by July Fourth.

MURTHY: And it's one of the reasons that we've worked really hard in the last several months to make sure that there are more and more ways to access the vaccine, from extended hours at pharmacies to getting it into doctors' offices to providing free rides through Uber and Lyft and free child care as well for people who are getting vaccinated. And these are all part of what we've got to do. So I'm optimistic that we'll make the 70%, but it's not going to be easy. It's going to take all of us.

CORNISH: Despite the positive direction here in the U.S., there's still a lot of unanswered questions about the future of the pandemic. So when we got a chance to do a long interview with the surgeon general this week, we wanted him to answer your questions, too. And we did that on Twitter Spaces, a social media platform for live audio conversations. And that's what you're about to hear - Vivek Murthy in front of a virtual audience. But first, one of the questions I had for the surgeon general was, how exactly does the Biden administration plan to meet its goal of getting 70% of the country vaccinated by Independence Day with so many still reluctant to get jabbed?

MURTHY: We know that about two-thirds of people who are not vaccinated right now either believe some of the commonly-held myths that are out there or think they might be true. They're not sure. And some of those myths include that you don't need to get the COVID vaccine if you've already had COVID. The answer is you actually absolutely do because the immunity that you get from natural infection is not nearly as robust, especially against the new variants. There are also some myths out there that you can get COVID from the vaccine itself, which is absolutely not true.

CORNISH: But in a way, we know what the myths are. I think what we don't know is, what's the script you're giving to providers to counter them? Because what you guys have right now is like a regional problem, right? You have a lot of Southern states where there are less than 40% of people vaccinated. In Mississippi, that number is 33%. Are we looking at a political problem, a red state problem versus a scientific one?

MURTHY: I think what we have to do is we've got to go more and more local. We've learned in the last many months is that the key to getting people vaccinated is for them to hear from people they trust. And we're a big, diverse country. And the people we trust and listen to aren't always the same. And that's one of the reasons we've been working so closely with faith leaders, with rural clinics and rural hospitals and with other influencers, whether they be teachers and educators or doctors and nurses. But that's really going to be the key to ensuring that we lift vaccination rates in all parts of the country.

MURTHY: We are listening to Vivek Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, talking about COVID. We're going to take questions in this Twitter Spaces soon, so get ready to raise your little, you know, Twitter paddle, so to speak, to say hi. I want to come back to this question that I don't think you fully answered yet about the politics because your predecessor was quite concerned about Republicans being pegged as anti-vaxxers and that that would make them sort of dig in against it. How are you hoping to address this?

MURTHY: Well, again, look. I know that the response to the pandemic, and if you look over the last year and a half, has suffered from politicization. And again, the way we deal with that is we, No. 1, trying to make sure people have access to accurate scientific information. And second, we make sure that that information is delivered through people they trust. And we just got to continue down that pathway. It's - we are actually making progress. Even when you look at not just the number of people vaccinated, when you look at vaccine confidence numbers, they are edging up - not nearly as fast, of course, as we would like, but they are moving in the right direction.

CORNISH: Now, I just want to remind everyone, we're going to be taking questions from within the room in just a few minutes. We actually reached out to listeners ahead of time for questions, and we did hear back from some people. So the surgeon general is going to take one or two questions from that batch now.

STERN: Hi. My name is Christine Stern (ph), 47, of Paso Robles, Calif. Last

STERN: week, our public school board announced masks were not required ages 4 to 8. Some teachers are vaccinated, but being only kids 12 and up can be vaccinated, I feel like younger children are sitting ducks. What is the real risk of having this age group in school without a mask? Are they carriers, and can they transmit the virus? Thank you.

MURTHY: Well, I look at the data of young kids, too. And my kids are 4 and 3. And I think about their health and their exposure all the time, too. Here's what I would say, and this is what gives me some hope. There are, No. 1, trials underway for the vaccine at under-12 populations. We don't know exactly when those will be done, but I think there's a pretty good chance that by the end of the calendar year there may be a vaccine available for your kids and for my kids.

But the second thing I would also just reinforce what we've seen is that in schools where masking is actually implemented and where other safety measures and precautions they're taking like distancing, hygiene, handwashing, et cetera, we've seen that you're able to actually keep infection rates quite low. And so that's what we've got to do. I think removing the requirement for masks for children who we're expecting to go to school and be in close proximity to other children when they don't have a vaccine available to them, to me that doesn't - that's not consistent with everything that we've learned from a public health and medical perspective about COVID-19.

CORNISH: I want to follow up one more thing on this timeline, which is a question from Amy Hill (ph).

HILL: This is Amy Hill from Silver Spring, Md. As a teacher, I was able to get my first shot at the end of January and was fully vaccinated by the first week of March. Most of my coworkers are on a similar timeline. Will our original vaccinations from this past January, February and March still protect us, or will there be booster shots available?

MURTHY: Well, Amy, that's a really good question. And the durability of the protection that we get from the vaccine is actually a subject of active study. The good news is that right now the studies have shown that, for the mRNA vaccines, at six months, you still have continued durability of the response. And we suspect it lasts many more months after that as well. So as soon as there is any sort of signal that immunity is waning, such that either boosters are required or another measure, then we will make that announcement, and we will make those booster shots available. But for now, if you were vaccinated earlier this year, you can feel pretty good about the protection that you have going into this summer and early fall.

CORNISH: We have two questions from Twitter Spaces, and we're going to start with Sam (ph) and then go to Katie (ph). Sam, if you can open up your mic and give your question to the U.S. surgeon general.

MURTHY: Hi, Sam.

SAM: Hi. So I just had a question. I go to university, a public university. It being a public university means that money comes through federal funds. Does that mean that if there is a vaccination mandate, then that would extend to all universities as well?

MURTHY: Well, Sam, that's a great question. And thanks for asking it. And what I would say is that we do not anticipate a federal mandate for vaccinations. On the other hand, I absolutely do hope that you will strongly consider getting vaccinated if you're not already, and if you are, that you'll also tell your classmates about the importance of getting vaccinated. Because one thing we've learned is not only is the vaccine important for people who are younger, even though you are at less risk of having a bad outcome compared to somebody in their 60s, 70s or 80s, we still have had thousands and thousands of young people who have been hospitalized, a number who have lost their lives to this virus. We want to prevent that, and the vaccine is the best way to do it.

CORNISH: Sam, thank you for your question, because I think you're trying to take my job. That was a very specific and very smart question. And I think the last hand I saw up was that of Jurgen (ph). If you're still in the room, let us know, maybe go off mute and ask your question to the surgeon general.

JURGEN: I have a very quick question. If you look at the global vaccination, the numbers are very low. And President Biden announced that they will be helping with 8- million doses overseas. This is a fantastic news. But still, let me just compare the population numbers. It's very, very early process. So as Americans, we feel very safe in our country. But when we Americans feel almost 100% safe when it comes to international travels and, you know, global pandemic management?

MURTHY: First, thank you for that question. And the global scene matters so much because we won't be safe in the United States until we address COVID globally. And the ways that we're going to do it, we've already taken some steps, and there's more coming. But the steps that you mentioned, yes, 80 million doses the president announced will be going on to other countries. Also, you may have read that the administration announced its intent to support a waiver of intellectual property rights around the vaccines to make it easier for other countries to develop vaccines. We've also contributed $4 billion to COVAX, which is a global effort to help distribute vaccines to the world. But there's more that we're actually working on. No. 1, working with companies actually dramatically ramp up their production of vaccines for the world, but also transfer some of the tech know-how to companies in other countries that can help manufacture.

CORNISH: Can we come back to something you just said? The administration said it will waive some patent protections for COVID vaccines in order to get drugs to low income countries, as you've just said. But the counteraction has been from pharmaceuticals, right? You've seen lobby groups running ads calling the move harmful, calling the move damaging. What's your response to this, this idea that you're disincentivizing future vaccine makers with this move?

MURTHY: Well, I think that in an extraordinary circumstance like what we're facing now, where we've lost millions of lives around the world and we're seeing still large hotspots in India and Brazil and many other countries, I think extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. And we all have to step up. But I'm not worried about the long term, like, in terms of innovation. I think we will have plenty of incentives for companies to develop good products and to sell them to the world. And I don't think that that's going to change dramatically across the board. I do think what will change is if we can knock down barriers to get to vaccine production, I think we can save millions of lives around the world. And that, I think, matters to all of us.

CORNISH: Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. Hours after we taped that interview, there was news of another effort by the White House to help countries with vaccines. A source confirmed to NPR that the Biden administration plans to buy 500 million doses of Pfizer vaccine to donate around the world. And the news came as the president was on his way to Europe for a G-7 summit, where he'll officially announce the plan and where the question of how to vaccinate more people around the world is expected to be front and center.

By the way, we will be doing more interviews like the one you just heard on Twitter Spaces. So if you want to participate, have an idea for a guest you'd like to hear from or just big questions you want considered, follow us on Twitter at the links in our episode notes.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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