ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
As the omicron variant continues to surge across the U.S., there's news today on the vaccine front. First, the FDA is expected to authorize a booster dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12 to 15 sometime next week. And two new studies out today suggest the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should be helpful in fighting omicron. NPR's Joe Palca is here to sort through this with us. Hi, Joe.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: What's in these two new J&J studies?
PALCA: Well, the news we have from these studies comes, I'm afraid, from press releases. They haven't really been peer-reviewed yet, so we don't have the kind of scientific scrutiny on them that we would like or that should be. But what they do suggest is that the J&J booster dose may be able to prevent hospitalization of people exposed to omicron. That comes from a study in some 69,000 health care workers in South Africa.
The researchers compared people who had two doses of J&J spaced six to nine months apart with people who had only one shot. And the results showed that the vaccine reduced hospitalizations by up to 85% when comparing people who got the booster and those who didn't. The study was done at a time when omicron was the dominant variant in South Africa. So the implication is it was doing something to prevent severe disease from omicron.
SHAPIRO: And I said there were two studies about the J&J vaccine. What about the other one?
PALCA: Right. The second one was a study in the laboratory from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston that looked at the blood from people who'd been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine and then given a booster, either the J&J vaccine as a booster or the Pfizer vaccine as a booster. Both enhanced the immune response against omicron in the lab, both antibodies and the what's called cellular immunity. But the J&J booster seemed to be doing a slightly better job.
SHAPIRO: Why might that be the case?
PALCA: Well, there's evidence that getting two different vaccine types might give a more robust immune response than just one. J&J is a viral vector vaccine. Pfizer and Moderna are mRNA vaccines. So that may be the difference. And these are numbers in the lab, so it's not entirely clear how they'll behave in the real world.
SHAPIRO: So is this a game-changer? Should people rush out to try to get a Johnson & Johnson booster?
PALCA: Well, no. I think it's premature for that. It's something that health officials will want to take a close look at. But mostly, what I'd say is this is positive news for Johnson & Johnson. That vaccine - it's a single-dose vaccine. It didn't have the kind of protection initially that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines did. And there were reports about rare but life-threatening blood clots with J&J. So I think the company has been very eager to find some good news to report, and this seems to be it.
SHAPIRO: Finally, tell us about the FDA's expected move to authorize Pfizer booster shots for kids ages 12 to 15.
PALCA: Well, scientists know that children at that age can get COVID, and they know the vaccine can help prevent severe disease. And they know without omicron-specific - without an omicron-specific vaccine, the best thing they can do is to boost people's immune system so they are at peak - so that system is peak performance, so to speak. So boosters for 12 to 15 year olds is a logical next step. And there's some evidence that people have been boosted are less likely to transmit the disease to other people who are unvaccinated. So probably even people who've had only two shots - it would probably be a good thing to get a booster. The agency is also expected to authorize a Pfizer booster in children 5 to 11 with immunodeficiencies.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Joe Palca. Thanks a lot.
PALCA: You're welcome.
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