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Two new research papers cast doubt on the new COVID booster

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

President Biden rolled up his sleeve in front of reporters at the White House today to get one of the new COVID-19 boosters. The event was part of the administration's campaign to encourage more people to get one of these new boosters before yet another possible surge hits the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Now's the time to do it - by Halloween if you can. That's the best time, and that way you can be protected for the holidays.

SUMMERS: But the federal government's push comes as new research is raising questions about whether the new shots are any better than the old ones. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now with the details. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there.

SUMMERS: So these new boosters are the first to target the omicron variant, and they're being promoted as providing better protection than the original shots. So what do these new studies tell us?

STEIN: Yeah, you might remember that these new boosters were authorized without any direct data about how well they work. To save time, the authorizations were based on how well shots aimed at an earlier omicron subvariant stimulated the immune system and on tests on mice. So these new studies provide the first direct data from people. Researchers at Columbia and Harvard compared how the immune systems of volunteers responded to the new bivalent boosters versus the original vaccine. Dr. David Ho at Columbia says the research suggests that the new shots may not be all that much better than the old ones.

DAVID HO: To disappointment, the bivalent vaccine did not show superiority over the original vaccine.

STEIN: About a month after getting the shots, the new boosters did not stimulate significantly higher levels of antibodies that could neutralize the omicron subvariants infecting most people right now.

SUMMERS: OK. So Rob, does this mean people should not bother getting these new boosters?

STEIN: No, no. No, not at all. First of all, some researchers say the jury is still out about how effective the new boosters are. Deepta Bhattacharya at the University of Arizona says the new studies were too small and too short to reach any firm conclusions.

DEEPTA BHATTACHARYA: For those who are saying, see, see, I told you so, I would say, let's stand down a little bit and wait for some cleaner data to come out because these studies can't be used to support, really, one argument or another.

STEIN: Even if the new boosters aren't any better than the original vaccine, they still look like they're at least just as good at helping restore some of the immunity that has faded since people got their last shots or infections, and that could be lifesaving, especially for those who are most vulnerable, like the elderly. And, you know, there's still the possibility that bigger, longer studies could show the new boosters are superior - that they could provide maybe longer-lasting immunity or even possibly help people fight off new variants that might emerge. But Dr. John Wherry at the University of Pennsylvania says people have to be realistic about just how much better they might be.

JOHN WHERRY: It's a little bit of a - sort of a reality check or a reset that the bivalent vaccines are not a magic bullet. They're not going to give us, you know, perfect protection from these new omicron variants that are circulating.

STEIN: So people can't let down their guard just because they've gotten one of these new boosters.

SUMMERS: And, Rob, I've got to ask you - so far, are people lining up to get these new boosters?

STEIN: You know, so far, not really. Only about 20 million people have gotten one of these new boosters, even though more than 200 million people have been eligible since Labor Day. And that's a big concern, especially with immunity fading, new even more possibly contagious omicron subvariants on the rise and another possible wave of infections possibly coming soon.

SUMMERS: OK. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein, thank you.

STEIN: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Sarah Handel
Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.