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Is The Need For COVID Boosters Actually Urgent? U.S. Surgeon General Weighs In


If you received two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine here in the U.S., you will soon be eligible for a third shot. Federal health officials said yesterday that they are going to roll out free booster shots in September. The announcement raises questions about how urgent the need for boosters is, how the rollout will work and whether we should even be giving boosters here in the U.S. Joining us now to talk about all this is the U.S. surgeon general, Vivek Murthy. Welcome.

VIVEK MURTHY: Well, thank you, Ailsa. Good to be with you today.

CHANG: And good to have you with us. So break down the science for us. If you've been vaccinated, why do you need a booster shot?

MURTHY: I'm glad you asked, Ailsa. Here's what people need to know. If you are fully vaccinated, you are in good shape because you still have a high degree of protection against the worst outcomes of COVID. And those are severe illness, hospitalization and death. But what we saw in the data, especially data that came in recent days, was that the protection against mild and moderate disease was starting to decline among those who were fully vaccinated. And our worry was that that trajectory over time would continue and potentially lead to an erosion in the protection we have right now against hospitalization and death.

CHANG: Right.

MURTHY: And so that's why we...

CHANG: And just to be clear - just to be clear, this is a third dose. This third dose is the same vaccine you've already received, not some different kind of shot, right?

MURTHY: That's right. It would be a third dose of the same vaccine that you received. And the plan that we announced yesterday to do these boosters starting the week of September 20 for people on their eight-month anniversary from their last shot - this plan represents an effort to stay ahead of the virus, to plan ahead. We are seeing early warning signs, and we want to make sure that we're acting quickly so that...

CHANG: Right.

MURTHY: ...We can ultimately protect people and extend the protection they're enjoying right now from the vaccines.

CHANG: But just last week, the CDC had said that there wasn't enough evidence yet to support boosters for the general population, so what changed?

MURTHY: So two things, I would say. One is we still do not believe people need boosters today. And so we're not recommending them today. This would be starting in the week of September 20. But the data that this decision was based on was a significant amount of data that literally came to us within the last few days. And what I will tell you is the process we went through internally was a very intense one. We pulled together the leading public health and scientific and medical minds inside the Department of Health and Human Services - everyone from the heads of the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration, the NIH as well as others like Dr. Tony Fauci, our assistant secretary of health, a number of others.

We pulled them together to look at this new data together and then to opine on whether they believed boosters were indicated. And we all believed it was. And so that - our commitment and what we have said, what I have said publicly is that we would be looking at this data. And when we saw a signal that indicated to us that boosters would be necessary at some point down the line, we would tell the public. And we wanted to tell them as soon as possible. That's why you heard this announcement yesterday.

CHANG: And is there currently enough vaccine for everyone in this country who wants a booster to get one? Are we going to see any shortages here? What do you think?

MURTHY: Well, we've been working hard on the supply portion, and we do believe there will be enough of vaccine available for people who need it. Another important part of this, Ailsa, is we want to not just have enough for boosters. We want to make sure that the growing number of people who every day are coming forward to get their first doses also have supply available to them.

CHANG: Right. Well, let me...

MURTHY: And that's what we have been planning for.

CHANG: Let me ask you about that, because you have said that you do not accept the idea that we have to choose between America and the world. But there's currently not enough vaccine production capacity to meet the global needs, so doesn't every third shot in America mean someone in a low-income country is not getting a shot?

MURTHY: Well, the way I think about it, Ailsa, is if we think of the pie as fixed in size, then a bigger slice of vaccine for those in the United States may mean less for people outside the U.S. But I do believe, number one, that it is our responsibility as the United States to make sure we are vaccinating our country and that we're helping vaccinate the world. That's how this pandemic will end. And the way we have to do that is by making the pie bigger. And that means not only donating our vaccine to others, but doing what we did with Pfizer, for example - pushing them to produce an extra 500 million doses for the world, which we are starting to roll out right now. We are working with the companies to produce even more. We are working with manufacturers in other countries to actually build the capacity to make vaccines far beyond what we have today.

CHANG: Right, but production capacity still currently is a problem. And let me ask you, I mean, the World Health Organization opposes this booster plan. They say that by diverting doses away from unvaccinated people, booster shots might drive the emergence of more dangerous mutants. What do you say to that concern?

MURTHY: Well, I absolutely understand that concern, and that's why I think we cannot take our eye off of the need to vaccinate the rest of the world. But we have to do both. When we see the data indicate to us that protection is declining and may put us at greater risk for hospitalization and death in the months ahead, we have to act. We have to take the steps necessary to continue to protect people here from COVID-19. And that's what we're doing, but we've also got to accelerate our efforts on the global front, which is what we are doing as well. So we don't have a choice to do one or the other. We have to do both.

CHANG: That is Dr. Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General. Thank you so much for joining us today.

MURTHY: Thank you so much, Ailsa. Take care and be well.

CHANG: You too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.