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Americans could start getting doses of new COVID shots as early as next week. The government says the boosters to fight omicron are key to protecting against severe illness this winter. But questions remain over how effective these shots will be. Dr. Céline Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at NYU’s Grossman School Of Medicine, joined Geoff Bennett to discuss.
Judy Woodruff:
Americans could start getting doses of new COVID booster shots as early as next week.
That is because a CDC advisory panel approved two new COVID booster vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna today.
Geoff Bennett has more.
Geoff Bennett:
Judy, while the rate of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. has fallen sharply from its peak this past winter, deaths are still holding steady at more than 400 per day.
Both Pfizer and Moderna have now redesigned their vaccines to be more effective against the latest, more transmissible Omicron subvariants. Health officials hope that the reformulated boosters will provide Americans with the most up-to-date protection and keep a lid on hospitalizations and deaths.
But questions remain over how effective these booster shots will be.
For more on all this I’m joined by Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine and a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation.
And welcome back to the “NewsHour.” It’s good to have you with us.
So, this is the first time, as you know, that the COVID vaccine has been reformulated. Pfizer’s updated boosters for people ages 12 and older. Moderna’s version is for adults, people ages 18 and older.
But for which groups will these updated vaccines be the most effective?
Dr. Celine Gounder, Infectious Disease and Public Health Specialist: Geoff, it’s the same groups who have been higher risk all along who will benefit the most from vaccination with these updated boosters, that is to say, people who are ages 50 and up, people who are immunocompromised.
Those are the groups that will benefit the most in terms of prevention of severe disease, hospitalization and death. And so if you fall into one of those categories, age 50 and up or immunocompromised, you should be lining up to get one of these updated boosters as soon as possible.
Geoff Bennett:
What about people who’ve already been infected with COVID and likely have some level of immunity?
Dr. Celine Gounder:
Well, this is an important question.
And what I would say in terms of spacing or timing of doses is that, ideally, you would wait three to six months after your last COVID infection or three to six months after your last vaccination before getting an additional dose of vaccine.
Infections do provide some level of immunity, but they do so at risk of complications, of course. And that immunity is not better than what you get from vaccination. You should think about it as equivalent to one dose of vaccine.
Geoff Bennett:
The approval process for the reformulated vaccines was fast-tracked. They were approved without data from human trials.
The head of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said that the consequences could be worse if we wait.
There are people who will hear that and who will be concerned. Should they be?
Dr. Celine Gounder:
From a safety perspective, I think there is very strong agreement, there’s consensus among scientists that these vaccines are safe.
The formulation is essentially the same. All of the other ingredients in these vaccines are the same as with the original vaccines. The tweak has been to the mRNA code, so that there’s a better match with the spike protein of the BA.5 Omicron variant. And then you still have code for the original virus.
But, otherwise, there’s really no difference in the vaccine formulations, so they are very safe.
Geoff Bennett:
There’s so much focus on vaccines nowadays when we talk about the overall COVID response, because, in so many places, mask mandates, social distancing measures, they are all but gone.
And, as I understand it, you have said that there are risks to thinking that a vaccine, a COVID vaccine, is like a silver bullet. Tell me more about that.
Dr. Celine Gounder:
Well, we’re — I think we’re putting too much on vaccines to get us out of the pandemic.
Yes, they are number one, number two, number three most important tools in our toolbox to fight COVID. But the vaccines do not prevent all infections. They help reduce the risk of infection, but not to zero. And they don’t prevent all transmission.
And so I think it’s important for people to understand that they still should be taking other measures. For example, when you go visit grandmother at the nursing home, you may still want a mask, even if you are fully vaccinated.
And so the risk here is that people think that they are invulnerable, that they won’t get COVID, that there’s no risk to anybody else, when, in fact, we still, if we really want to further reduce that death rate from the 400 to 500 we’re seeing right now, we do need to think about implementing some other things.
Geoff Bennett:
The federal government is running out of money to fund its COVID response, mainly due to Congress’ reluctance and its unwillingness to provide additional funding.
What do you see as the real world consequences of a funding shortfall? It means the government won’t be in a position to provide uninsured Americans, certainly, the COVID vaccines and treatments and tests that they have been relying on.
Dr. Celine Gounder:
Yes, the fund to cover testing, treatment and vaccination of uninsured people has already run out of money. That was a few months ago now.
And the U.S. government is going to be purchasing or has purchased the boosters for this fall. But that will be the last time the U.S. government has funding to purchase COVID vaccine for the American people. And what that means is now you’re going to have individual health care systems, individual insurance companies having to negotiate directly with Pfizer and Moderna to purchase vaccines.
They will not have the same kind of purchasing power to help negotiate the best price. And they will also be in competition with other countries, like the U.K., various countries in Europe, et cetera, to purchase those vaccines. So we could find ourselves in a much weaker position to negotiate pricing of the vaccines.
And then, of course, uninsured people, people who have worse insurance may have more difficulty accessing what vaccines we can get.
Geoff Bennett:
Dr. Celine Gounder, thanks so much for your insights.
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Geoff Bennett is the chief Washington correspondent for PBS NewsHour and anchor of PBS News Weekend.
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