LEILA FADEL, HOST:
The next round of COVID vaccine boosters may be widely available earlier than expected.
A MARTINEZ, HOST:
Yeah. The new versions of the vaccine are being designed to protect against the latest, more transmissible variants of coronavirus. The Biden administration is trying to make them available as early as September.
FADEL: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now. Good morning, Rob.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.
FADEL: OK. So we were expecting the administration to announce people under age 50 could start getting that second booster. But now that's up in the air. Why?
STEIN: That's right. This is all about trying to balance protecting people this summer with keeping people safe next winter, when the country will probably get hit by another surge. The problem we're having is the immunity that lots of people have gotten from getting vaccinated or infected has been wearing off. And the most contagious version of the virus to come along yet, the omicron subvariant called BA.5, is making people even more vulnerable. So COVID is starting to become more serious than something like the cold or the flu again for more people. And most people younger than 50 aren't eligible for fourth shots, second boosters, to protect themselves. But here's the rub. Letting more people get boosted with the original vaccine now may kind of mess up plans to boost people with updated, hopefully more protective vaccines in the fall to blunt the toll of the winter surge.
FADEL: So what's the new strategy?
STEIN: Well, the administration is thinking of shifting the focus to the next generation of boosters. Moderna and Pfizer and BioNTech were already scrambling to comply with the Food and Drug Administration's request to get new, hopefully more powerful boosters that target both the original strain of the virus and BA.5 ready by October or November. Now a federal official who's familiar with the matter but not authorized to talk about it publicly tells NPR that the FDA is trying to get the companies to make those shots available even sooner, possibly as soon as September. If that's possible, the FDA would skip opening up fourth shots of the original vaccines this summer and just wait for the new double-barreled omicron vaccines in the fall.
FADEL: And what's the reaction been?
STEIN: You know, it's mixed. Some think this is the smartest strategy. They say three shots are still protecting most younger, otherwise healthy people against serious illness. Boosting them again now and then again so soon in the fall could just confuse people and potentially erode people's willingness to get any boosters. And giving two shots too close together could actually backfire. Here's Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
CELINE GOUNDER: I think this was the right call. If you get a booster now with the original formulation of the vaccine, this may, in fact, be counterproductive. It may prevent the second booster dose given this fall from taking and from you developing an immune response to that booster.
STEIN: Because there just wouldn't be enough time between the shots for them to work well. But, you know, others aren't so sure. They say the new vaccines may not be all that much better or end up being available by September. And who knows if BA.5 will even be the main virus by the fall and winter. So people younger than 50 should at least have the option to protect themselves now, especially with BA.5 already surging. Here's Dr. Robert Wachter at the University of California, San Francisco.
ROBERT WACHTER: You're talking about literally hundreds of millions of people who are at a higher risk than they need to be for months. And that will mean potentially millions of preventable infections, certainly thousands of preventable hospitalizations and probably hundreds of preventable deaths.
STEIN: The FDA could decide what to do by the end of this week.
FADEL: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you.
STEIN: Sure thing.
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