SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Millions of people should get a third dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine if they have a condition that suppresses their immune system. That advice comes from two federal health agencies. What if you got the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine? Well, the rest of us need a booster shot, too. Well, thankfully, NPR health reporter Pien Huang has some answers. Pien, thanks for being with us.
PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: Let's start with that recommendation from the CDC and the FDA. Who specifically are they saying ought to get a third dose?
HUANG: It applies to about 7 million people in the U.S. that are strongly immunocompromised. These could be people who have had an organ transplant and are on drugs to prevent organ rejection to people getting chemotherapy for cancer. Some chronic diseases like advanced HIV or kidney disease can also suppress the immune system. In many cases, people with very weak immune systems didn't have a strong response to their initial COVID shots. And some studies are showing that a third dose could help. Valen Keefer, who's had a liver and kidney transplant, is thrilled at the news.
VALEN KEEFER: This is amazing and such an important step and needed for a while for our transplant community. And this has been so hard for us through the entire time of COVID to try and stay safe.
HUANG: So this is a big step. But doctors say even if people with weakened immune systems get a third shot, they're still at high risk, especially with the delta variant. And they should still protect themselves with masks and social distancing.
SIMON: What about loved ones, friends and family around them?
HUANG: Well, those around them should be fully vaccinated but not with an additional dose, at least not yet.
SIMON: Well, Pien, what's the science behind these new recommendations?
HUANG: Well, public health officials are always on the lookout for waning immunity to any vaccine. And right now, of course, the focus is on COVID. But what happened here is while studies of two-dose vaccines show that they work well for most people, they haven't worked for many with seriously suppressed immune systems. These people are still getting infections, sometimes very seriously. And some studies show they account for about 40% of people that are vaccinated but still getting sick enough to get hospitalized for COVID. This third dose looks like it could bring some of them into the same protective range as healthier people. Now, this recommendation is not for people who are not severely immunosuppressed. It doesn't cover people with diabetes or heart disease. They're not recommending it for people in nursing homes, either. For those groups, the vaccines have mostly worked as intended. And I should also add that people who got the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine aren't part of this recommendation, either, because the FDA and CDC say there just isn't enough data yet.
SIMON: Let me voice a question millions of Americans might have today. Is my vaccine wearing off? Do I need another dose?
HUANG: The CDC's vaccine advisory committee met yesterday, and they looked at the latest data on the need for boosters overall. Israel and Germany have actually already started giving boosters to some people, but the CDC told its advisers that there isn't enough evidence to support them yet. Immunity seems to persist at high levels for at least six to eight months. And the vaccines are still doing a good job at keeping people from getting very sick from the coronavirus and its variants. What's more important, they said, is getting more people in the U.S. their first and second shots right now.
SIMON: What's ahead with these vaccines?
HUANG: Well, the FDA is still considering a few important applications. Both Pfizer and Moderna have applied for full approval for their vaccines. And soon, when the data's available, they'll consider vaccines for young children from ages six months through 11. And health officials say they're keeping a close eye on whether boosters are needed for the general population over the next couple of months. It will depend on how the pandemic develops.
SIMON: NPR health reporter Pien Huang, thanks so much.
HUANG: Thank you.
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