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COVID variant fears spur booster shot plans around the world. Here’s the latest update

COVID variant fears spur booster shot plans around the world. Here's the latest update


Medical studies say that vaccines still provide robust protection against the most dangerous effects of COVID-19 and its variants. 

Sara Tew/CNET

For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

A new analysis published by the UK government’s scientific advisory group says it’s “almost inevitable” a COVID-19 variant will emerge that can resist vaccines, CNN reported Sunday. The analysis is theoretical in nature and has not been peer-reviewed. But it speaks to the deep chasm between those who have and have not received the COVID-19 vaccine, and fuels questions about what governments, public health organizations and vaccine-makers will do next to keep new cases and deaths from surging as scientists continue to track developments in coronavirus variants like delta and lambda. A major part of the discussion: booster shots and new vaccines to target new variants or attempt to keep them at bay.

“Things are going to get worse,” US infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said Sunday on ABC’s This Week.

Currently in the US, “breakthrough” coronavirus cases caused by the dominant delta variant amount to less than 1% of people who are fully vaccinated. Both Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are proven to be over 90% effective against hospitalizations and death. The surge in new COVID-19 cases are primarily affecting unvaccinated people and causing community spread, and in turn, the return of mask mandates and guidance in hard-hit areas, even for people who have full vaccine protection. The debate over mask use and vaccine boosters underscores how scientists and other health experts continue to grapple with the uncertainties of COVID-19. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent study shows that vaccinated people can both contract the highly contagious delta variant and spread it. According to a widely reported internal CDC memo, the delta variant spreads as easily as chicken pox, which is considered more contagious than the flu and less contagious than measles

To prepare for the possibility of a booster shot, the CDC said it’s weighing a third vaccine dose for people with compromised immune systems. Over the weekend, Israel began administering third doses of the vaccine to those 60 and older, and the UK plans to do the same. However, this is resulting in a backlash among countries that are struggling to deliver first and second shots to residents.

Here’s what we know about COVID booster shots now.

Booster shot vs. new COVID vaccine: There’s a difference

Along with Moderna, Pfizer’s current two-dose vaccine provides powerful and effective protection against all known variants of COVID-19, including the delta variant, according to ongoing studies and self-reported statistics. But Pfizer also announced in July that a third dose of its vaccine is currently under development. The company said its own research showed a booster shot of its current vaccine increased antibody levels five to 10 times higher over its two-dose shots, noting that its results have not been published or peer-reviewed. 

Pfizer said it believes the level of protection the first two doses of its vaccine provide can gradually decrease over time, and a third booster dose may be needed “within six to 12 months” after a person is fully vaccinated with the first two doses. Pfizer said a booster shot could enhance protection against the delta variant, which has been known to infect fully vaccinated people. Clinical trials on the booster are set to begin, as Pfizer seeks approval from government regulators for a third dose. 

However, while a booster shot would complement the two doses of its existing vaccine, Pfizer is also separately working on a  new vaccine formulation targeting the delta variant.

What do the CDC and FDA think about a booster shot?

The CDC and FDA initially exercised caution over a booster shot. 

“People who are fully vaccinated are protected from severe disease and death, including from the variants currently circulating in the country such as Delta,” the CDC and FDA said in a July 8 joint statement, without naming Pfizer. The government agencies emphasized the need for all eligible people to receive full doses of one of the approved vaccines, all of which are free. 

The CDC and FDA said the question of a booster requires extensive scientific data and doesn’t depend on the input from pharmaceutical companies alone. “Virtually all COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are among those who are unvaccinated,” the statement mentioned, adding that the agencies will approve booster doses “if and when the science demonstrates that they are needed.”

Viewpoints may be changing. There is a growing consensus among Biden administration health officials that older individuals and those with compromised immune systems may, in fact, need a third shot, according to a July 23 article in The New York Times. The same article notes that the CDC is exploring options to administer third doses even prior to authorization. 

Is Moderna also planning to develop a booster shot?

While scientists and public health officials continue to study if those who are fully vaccinated will need a booster shot, Moderna said — along with Pfizer — it is exploring a third vaccine dose to complement the initial two vaccine shots. 

Would the booster shot be free?

The current one-dose vaccine shot from Johnson & Johnson and two-dose versions from Moderna and Pfizer are free to anyone who wants to get vaccinated. According to the Biden administration, COVID-19 booster shots will also be free, if and when they’re approved.

Biden press conference

The Biden administration says booster shots would be free.

Screenshot by CNET

Is it a good idea to mix and match COVID vaccines?

The CDC doesn’t recommend mixing and matching vaccines from the different makers, saying it hasn’t evaluated the effectiveness of mixing vaccine doses and that the “vaccines are not interchangeable.” 

However, other global health agencies and countries are testing administered vaccines from two different manufacturers. In England, for example, a recent study found that those who received a first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine and a second of Pfizer had a higher immune response than those who received two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

While we wait to see how the situation develops, here’s what we know about the delta variant, more about COVID-19 boosters and if you need to continue to wear a mask.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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