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The availability of COVID-19 boosters may soon expand dramatically

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The U.S. is on the verge of drastically expanding the availability of COVID-19 vaccine boosters. The FDA and CDC are poised to sign off on Johnson & Johnson and Moderna boosters this week. One of those is a bit more complicated than the other. Joining us now with the latest is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

DETROW: So let's start with the FDA. What can we expect this week?

STEIN: So any day now, the FDA is expected to authorize the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters following recommendations from the agency's advisory committee last week. This comes after months of intense debate and lots of confusing zigzags. But this will mean that many of the 69 million people who got Moderna shots and all 15 million who got the J&J are about to become officially eligible for boosters. That's on top of the millions who are already getting boosters of the Pfizer vaccine for several weeks now.

DETROW: You're saying everyone who got a Johnson & Johnson shot would would be eligible, as well as many people with Moderna. Tell us more about eligibility and when people will be able to get these shots.

STEIN: So you know, the Moderna boosters are being recommended for the same folks who are getting Pfizer boosters. That's anyone 65 and older and younger adults who are at a high risk because they have other health problems or risky jobs or living situations who got their second shots at least eight months ago. The J&J boosters would be for anyone age 18 or older who got their shot at least two months ago. Then on Thursday, CDC advisers will refine (ph) exactly how to use these boosters. One key question is whether people should get the same vaccine as a booster or get a different one. New research suggests that people who got a Pfizer or Moderna benefit about equally from getting either of those as a booster. But those who got the J&J look like they might do much better if they get one of the other vaccines instead. Here's what Dr. Anthony Fauci said about this on Fox News yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOX NEWS BROADCAST)

ANTHONY FAUCI: I believe there's going to be a degree of flexibility of what a person who got the J&J originally can do, either with J&J or with the mix and match from other products.

STEIN: And Dr. Fauci also says federal health officials are keeping an eye on the situation to see if they should eventually expand the pool of people eligible for Pfizer and Moderna boosters to younger adults - you know, if more evidence accumulates that their protection is fading, too.

DETROW: Back on the Johnson & Johnson question, you know, I got a Johnson & Johnson shot. I have been constantly texting with other friends in that boat. And honestly, we are all really confused by all of these twists and turns and which shot to get. What do these 15 million people in my situation need to know about this?

STEIN: Yeah. Well, some of the experts I've been talking to say if people can wait until the end of the week, a lot of this should be official by then.

DETROW: Yeah.

STEIN: But others are telling me, you know, people who got the J&J should really go get a Pfizer or Moderna this time because it looks like that would really rev up the immune systems better. Here's Dr. Carlos del Rio at Emory University.

CARLOS DEL RIO: If I had gotten the J&J vaccine, I would probably want to be boosted with one of the mRNA vaccines, either Pfizer or Moderna. I feel that that's probably a good strategy.

STEIN: But he says anyone who got the Pfizer or Moderna should just go get another one of those shots. It really doesn't matter which one.

DETROW: So these charts we've been obsessively looking at for a year and a half now are all trending down. That's a good thing. The delta surge is fading. Are these boosters needed?

STEIN: You know, that's a good question. There are still skeptics about how strong the evidence really is that they are needed, you know, especially when the rest of the world still isn't vaccinated. But more and more breakthrough infections are happening. And remember, more than 80,000 people are still catching the virus every day, and more than 1,200 are still dying every day. And we're headed into the colder weather and the holidays, which makes people worry about, you know, yet another surge. So the experts I've been talking to say it's really important to shore up the immunity of as many people as possible. I talked to Dr. Nahid Bhadelia about this at Boston University.

NAHID BHADELIA: The boosters will help decrease some of the more severe breakthrough infections at a time where we are in that tenuous period with the holidays, with the colder weather, with still a percentage of the population in many states that are under-vaccinated or unvaccinated. I think that it's going to definitely provide more resilience.

STEIN: And you know, the next big question up is about vaccines for kids ages 5 to 11. The FDA and the CDC will be taking that up soon, and they could start getting their vaccines before Thanksgiving.

DETROW: NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.