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New COVID-19 boosters to be available for those 12 and up

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has approved new booster shots for the vast majority of Americans - the first boosters to target the variants that are actually infecting people now. NPR's health correspondent Rob Stein joins us. Rob, thanks for being with us.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And these new boosters are already becoming available, right?

STEIN: Yes, they are, albeit on a very limited basis so far. The federal government bought more than 170 million doses before the shots were even authorized. And by the end of the day today, I'm told nearly 4 million doses will have arrived at about 15,000 sites around the country. In fact, at least some pharmacies started giving shots yesterday, and the vaccines will really start to become more widely available next week.

SIMON: What makes these shots different?

STEIN: They're the original Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines that have been reprogrammed to target the original virus plus the omicron subvariants that are driving the pandemic now. The idea is to shore up people's immunity against what could be another surge of infections coming this fall and winter, and maybe even generate immunity that lasts longer and could even fend off new variants that might emerge.

SIMON: But I understand some scientists are skeptical.

STEIN: Yeah. So first thing I should say is everyone thinks they're very safe, but for the first time, these shots were only tested in mice, not people. So some experts say we really have no idea how well they'll work and doubt they'll be much of an upgrade. But others are more confident. They say, look, we know enough about how these vaccines work at this point and how well earlier versions that targeted another strain of omicron worked to be confident that these shots will work quite well. I talked about this yesterday with White House adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci.

ANTHONY FAUCI: With the totality of the evidence, you can make a reasonable assumption that this will be a benefit.

SIMON: So Rob, who should get the new shots?

STEIN: Anyone age 12 and older can get the Pfizer-BioNTech boosters as long as it's been at least two months since their last shot. Anyone aged 18 and older can get the Moderna booster. Now, many scientists say people should really wait longer than two months since either their last shot or the last time they caught the virus, or the new shots just won't work very well - like three to six months instead. Dr. Fauci, who's 81, told me he plans to get his booster about three months after he caught the virus in June.

SIMON: Should people who meet that criteria rush out to get these new boosters?

STEIN: Some experts say most otherwise healthy younger people are still pretty well protected from their first shots, so it's really optional at this point. Only older people and people with other health problems really need to get boosted right away. But others say everyone should get at least some benefit from the shots. Dr. Fauci told me he's recommending his three daughters, who are in their 30s, get the new boosters.

FACUI: The relative degree of benefit that they might get at their age may not be as great as the relative degree of benefit that I might get, but that does not mean that they will get no benefit from it. And I would rather air on the side of them getting a benefit.

STEIN: But, you know, some experts say they're holding off to time their booster to get the biggest bang for the buck, like until a few weeks before it looks like cases are starting to surge or when they're planning to do risky things like travel. Deepta Bhattacharya is an immunobiologist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

DEEPTA BHATTACHARYA: If you want to wait a little bit and make sure that your protection is maximal right before, you know, some event that might put you at greater risk, that's actually not an unreasonable way to think about it. But you have to understand that there's always that risk that while you're waiting and why you're holding out is when the virus gets you.

STEIN: So like so many things about the pandemic these days, it really comes down to an individual decision.

SIMON: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thanks so much.

STEIN: Sure thing. Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.