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The FDA is considering authorizing a spring COVID-19 booster


NPR has learned the Food and Drug Administration is considering allowing some people to get another booster with one of the newest COVID-19 vaccines. Here's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: At this point in the pandemic, if you can't even remember how many COVID shots and boosters you've gotten, you're not alone. Kat Moore (ph) is a nurse practitioner, and even she had to take a minute to figure it out.

KAT MOORE: I got the first two in January of 2021 when it first came out. Then I think I got another booster, and I think I got yet another booster after that, and then omicron. So I believe it's five, yeah.

STEIN: But Moore, who's 63 and lives in North Plainfield, N.J., knows she wants another booster right now, even though she's already had COVID once and knows the numbers are going down.

MOORE: I just don't want to get COVID again. I do not want to get it again. I don't really know what the long-term risks are, and I don't really want to find out. I don't want the risk of long COVID. I don't want the breathing problems. I don't want the fatigue. I don't want those things.

STEIN: But at the moment, Moore can't get another booster. The FDA has only authorized the newest formulations of the vaccines, the bivalent shots that target omicron, for one booster. Instead, the agency is planning for an annual COVID booster campaign starting in the fall, with vaccines that have been updated to target whichever variant is expected to be circulating next winter.

MOORE: Why not get both? You know, in the past, we've had upticks in the summertime. Why not get both?

STEIN: A federal official who is not authorized to speak publicly tells NPR that the agency is reconsidering the situation and may authorize a second booster with the bivalent vaccines for at least some people, like those who are at high risk because they have weak immune systems or are 65 and older. That's what some vaccine specialists have been urging, like Dr. Peter Hotez at the Baylor College of Medicine.

PETER HOTEZ: Those doses are going to be expired and will be thrown out. so it makes sense to have those shots in arms rather than tossed in the wastebasket. The way to go is to get that second bivalent spring booster out there.

STEIN: The concern is the protection people got from their shots has been fading, not just against getting infected, but also possibly against getting seriously ill. So Hotez thinks people as young as 50 should be able to get a second bivalent booster if they want one. But other scientists aren't so sure. They say there just isn't any good data showing protection against serious illness has faded that much or getting another shot would help that much. And there's a theoretical possibility that it could kind of backfire because the bivalent boosters target a strain that's already been replaced by a new one. Dr. Gregory Poland is a vaccine expert at the Mayo Clinic.

GREGORY POLAND: The concern is that if we continue to give boosters against a virus that's not circulating, when we do see the next variant, you may not develop a vigorous immune response to that new viral variant.

STEIN: Less than 17% of those eligible for the first bivalent shot got one, and so the demand for another one right now would probably be even lower. But some people would rush to get one if they could, like Moore and Ellen McDaniel-Weissler (ph). She's 63 and lives in rural Maryland.

ELLEN MCDANIEL-WEISSLER: I am deeply convinced that the COVID pandemic is not over, in spite of the fact that people are, you know, suffering from COVID fatigue, as am I. But people are still dying of COVID every day.

STEIN: The FDA is expected to make a decision within weeks.

Rob Stein, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NORTHCAPE'S "CAPILLARY ACTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.