CDC director on COVID boosters, global vaccine supply, evolving virus science

The Biden administration has said COVID-19 vaccine boosters may be available to eligible groups a week from now. But that timing is uncertain and scientific advisory committees still need to meet in the next several days. Lisa Desjardins spoke with CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky about the status of boosters and the spread of the virus as part of a special forum hosted by Research America.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths have risen substantially in the U.S. from low points earlier this summer.

    In some states, ICUs have been overloaded, as the Delta variant keeps its hold on much of the country. The Biden administration has said booster shots may be available to eligible groups next week. But that timing is uncertain. Scientific advisory committees still need to meet in the next several days.

    Earlier today, Lisa Desjardins spoke with CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky about many of these questions. It was part of a special forum hosted by Research America, a biomedical advocacy group.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    One of the items that is a major discussion for scientists and for you right now is the idea of booster shots.

    Now the Biden administration is planning to roll out a major booster effort within just days. I wonder if you can tell us exactly who you think should be getting those booster shots, what the plan is right now. And what does the data support here? How do you see this?

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC Director:

    We know that among the things that we need to do as we're planning a lot for booster shots is to really focus as well on the unvaccinated.

    So I really do want to highlight that, while we are focusing on booster shots, we cannot take our eye off of making sure that people who are not yet vaccinated get vaccinated.

    So let's, like, say that, but also turn to the importance of the data that we are going to need to collect to understand who and when booster shots can and should be given.

    We have — we at CDC, I'm really pleased and proud to say, have been following a group of cohorts of selected people across the country to follow the question of, how are our vaccines working? Now, we have many of these cohorts, tens of thousands of people, 4,000 health care workers that are getting a test every week, regardless of symptoms. That can tell us about asymptomatic spread.

    We started to see that there was some waning with our vaccine effectiveness just with regard to infections. People weren't getting that particularly sick yet, but just with regard to infections.

    And that foreshadowed we may be seeing this soon with regard to hospitalizations and severe disease. And that's really where we came together and said, as a country, as a government, we are planning for this. We know that this might happen. We're starting to see the data that it might happen. And we are now planning for this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And will that — with those booster shots begin as planned, or…

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    So, I'm not going to get ahead of the FDA's process, but we are planning, and I'm hopeful for the timeline that's been mapped out.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You also are a global infectious disease expert. And you know that there's been so much pushback from around the world, from the WHO, saying this is like giving a life jacket to someone who already has a life jacket.

    Your counterpart in Africa said it's not fair. And you have worked on infectious disease in Africa. I wonder what — how you respond to that criticism.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    I think it's a false narrative to imply they're mutually exclusive.

    My job as the CDC director is to protect our country. I do that by making sure that the people of this country are safe, and I do that by making sure that the rest of the world is safe, so that people don't bring other things into this country, other variants, other diseases, right?

    We have already donated 130 million doses of vaccine into 90 countries. And when I think about what the impact of boosters will be here in the United States over the rest of 2021, we anticipate perhaps about 100 hundred million doses of booster's being given in the next three months.

    During that period of time, we will have donated 200 million more doses internationally. So I don't necessarily think it's a fair discussion to say either/or. I think we have to do three things simultaneously. We have to work to vaccinate the world. And we are doing so. We have to work to boost people here in the United States, so we can maintain a good level of protection. And we need to work to vaccinate the people who are not yet vaccinated.

    And we can't focus on any single one of those parts. We have to do them all together.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I know that you want Americans to be confident in your organization, but how do you respond to criticism that still Americans feel they're getting conflicting messages?

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    Yes, I came into this position and an agency that was being challenged at the time and in a public health infrastructure that has been — that's had a hard 18 months.

    My job as the director of this agency is to protect the public, the public health, and to make sure that I have a strong 12,000 team to do that on behalf of the public.

    It has been hard to convey rapidly changing science. I think that that — people want the answer today, and they want it to stay the answer. And Delta changed things for us in this country. And the science for Delta evolved. And my responsibility was to review the science, review it carefully, update the science to protect the American people.

    And that's what we did when we put masks back on. And, in fact, I will say that we did it in pretty record speed. We did an outbreak investigation with colleagues in Massachusetts that demonstrated that you could transmit if you happened to be a breakthrough infection with vaccine.

    We corroborated that within a weekend. We published the data within a weekend. And the guidelines had changed that week. That's hard to move a train of 300 million people through, to convey that science. But that's what we needed to do.

    And we are actively following the science and that that — the science — that science, as it evolves, is resulting in our evolution of guidance. And that's what I was asked to do as director of this agency.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Dr. Rochelle Walensky, thank you so much for your time and for joining us. And thank you for your work.

  • Dr. Rochelle Walensky:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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