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How booster shots could help protect Americans from the delta variant

Judy Woodruff and William Brangham discuss the Biden administration's reported plans to recommend coronavirus booster vaccinations for Americans starting eight months after they received their second shot. An official announcement is anticipated Wednesday.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tomorrow the Biden administration plans to recommend coronavirus booster vaccinations for Americans starting eight months after they received their second shot.

    William Brangham joins me to explain who is affected and more.

    So, hello, William.

    What we are told is that the government is going to say that everybody who had the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine — and that's, what, over 100 million Americans — that's a lot of people — are going to have — are going to recommend that they have this booster.

    What is behind this?

  • William Brangham:

    The rationale is twofold.

    One is the Delta variant that we all know so well, which is this incredibly contagious strain that is sickening people and filling hospitals, sickening largely unvaccinated people and filling hospitals all over the country.

    The second is a small number of studies that are showing that some — these two vaccines, the mRNA vaccines, are slightly waning in their efficacies, going from something of 90-plus percent, down to 40 to 50 percent.

    Now, that waning of efficacy is about your ability to get infected. We still believe that these vaccines are very good at protecting you from getting sick and from going to the hospital. But they are showing at about six months — and, largely, this data comes out of Israel, that the vaccines are starting to fade in their protection.

    So, the idea is that, if you're going to get a booster, you would be getting one more shot of the exact same vaccine you took originally. And that would extend your protection and ramp up your protection. The CEO of Pfizer recently said — this is Albert Bourla — he said that in studies in the — within the company themselves, a third dose boosted the protection by tenfold.

    So, that's the rationales.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tenfold.

    And so when, William, would this booster shot be offered to people?

  • William Brangham:

    Well, the Biden administration tomorrow, we believe, is going to say, we think this is a good idea.

    Shots won't actually be going out until the FDA formally approves those. That could come relatively soon. So that could be in the fall.

    It is expected, though, for people who have gotten the J&J vaccine, that they too will get the recommendation for a booster, not right away. The government is still waiting on another trial for them.

    So, if the FDA approves this, come fall, come next month even, it's likely believed that we would go through the same order of vaccinations for these boosters, that it would go to the elderly, front-line health care workers and then the rest of us.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, William, there is this argument out there that's been made by a number of people that it doesn't make sense for the United States and other wealthy countries to be giving a third COVID vaccine when so much of the rest of the world has barely even begun to have access to vaccinations at all.

  • William Brangham:

    No, that's exactly right, Judy.

    And this is an argument you hear many people make. Most recently, Maria Van Kerkhove of the WHO has said there's a limited supply of vaccines in the world right now. And so, if we're going to deploy them, what is the most effective way to do it?

    And the WHO and many others argue that it is economically, epidemiologically and morally inappropriate to be using them to give to Westerners who've already been vaccinated, when so much of the rest of the world has not been vaccinated, because this is the problem, that this is how variants get created.

    When you have the virus running widespread and rampant in the world, new variants come out.

    I recently asked this about — to Anthony Fauci when he was on the show last week. And I put this question to him. How do we balance this, the desire for boosters with a world that needs more vaccines? And here's what he had to say.

  • Dr. Anthony Fauci:

    I believe we can do both. And we are on the pathway to doing that.

    The United States is leading the world as far as getting doses to other countries, particularly low- and middle-income countries. We have now given about 110 million doses to 60 countries. Having said that, I don't think that's enough. And we don't think that's enough.

    So, we're going to try and push and work with the companies to expand their capacity to get billions of doses to people.

    I think, as we do that, at the same time, that we can get booster doses to the people in this country who need it. Bottom line, I believe you can do both.

  • William Brangham:

    That is the administration's argument, that they can do both, give boosters here if needed, and supply to the rest of the world.

    But, as I was mentioning, the WHO and many others argue that the current vaccines, the protection that we all have right now, still gives great protection to the most serious outcomes from COVID-19. It's — we're not going to go to the hospital, and we're very likely not going to die if we have been vaccinated.

    Given that, shouldn't we be focusing more on a global equity issue? But those arguments right now do not seem to be winning the day. We know that Israel has already started to vaccinate people with a third dose. Germany and France are considering it next month. And it sounds like, tomorrow, the Biden administration will announce that we are going to start doing the same here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But this does raise so many questions about how many more doses are going to be available and how quickly.

  • William Brangham:

    Exactly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    William Brangham, thank you.

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