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FDA officials authorize Moderna and J&J COVID vaccine boosters

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Everyone who got a Johnson & Johnson shot and many people who received Moderna's vaccine may soon be heading off to get one more dose if they want one. The Food and Drug Administration has authorized boosters for many of the 85 million people who got those two vaccines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still needs to sign off, though, when CDC advisers meet today.

NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been following all of this. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Morning, Scott.

DETROW: So what exactly has the FDA authorized here?

STEIN: The FDA expanded the pool of people eligible for boosters big-time and is giving a lot of flexibility in picking which vaccine to use as a boost. Anyone 65 and older who got the Moderna vaccine at least six months ago can get a half dose as a booster. Same goes for younger adults who got Moderna who have health problems or risky jobs, like nurses and teachers, and risky living situations, like homeless shelters or prisons - just like the Pfizer booster.

It's even more open for people who got the J&J vaccine. The FDA gave the green light to a full dose of the J&J to anyone who got the one-shot vaccine at least two months ago. That's because the J&J has never been as protective as the other vaccines.

DETROW: There was a period during the pandemic where it seemed like the only small talk in America was, what vaccine did you get?

STEIN: Yeah. Right.

DETROW: That window might be closing, though. Tell us about the FDA's authorization for mixing vaccines.

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, research indicates that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are essentially interchangeable as effective boosters. And this gives people a lot of flexibility if one vaccine is not available or if they want to try a different one because, say, you know, they had a bad reaction. It also simplifies boosting people in nursing homes, where residents may have gotten different vaccines.

And it's especially important for those who got the J&J vaccine. Boosting J&J recipients with a Pfizer or Moderna shot seems much better for turbocharging the immune system than just getting another J&J. So now that's an option. Some people may still go with J&J again, maybe because it's easier to get or maybe because they feel more comfortable getting the same one they got the first time. And J&J does a decent job as a booster and may even give people longer-lasting immunity.

DETROW: This clearly makes sense for older people, for people who are immunocompromised. But there's been a real scientific split. And some of it has shown up at these advisory panels on what...

STEIN: Right.

DETROW: ...Younger and healthier people should do when it comes to these booster shots. What are officials saying?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. So for now the agency is following the advice of its advisers that there just isn't enough evidence yet to justify giving it to younger, healthier people. The vaccines still seem to be keeping most younger, otherwise healthy people, you know, from getting really sick. But there is growing evidence that protection may be waning for those people, too, maybe starting with, you know, 40-somethings. So officials say they'll loosen up when it's clear that's necessary. So stay tuned on that one.

DETROW: We are coming up on a decision about vaccines for younger kids. Where does...

STEIN: Yeah.

DETROW: ...That stand?

STEIN: Yeah. So next Tuesday, FDA advisers will review Pfizer's request to authorize that vaccine for kids ages 5 to 11. Older kids are already getting Pfizer shots. Pfizer says using a one-third dose of the dose that grown-ups got is safe and effective for kids ages 5 to 11. And if Pfizer gets the OK, which is expected, the CDC will weigh in on this the first week of November. So kids will need two doses three weeks apart, just like their parents. But lots of kids could well be on their way to being fully vaccinated by around Thanksgiving, which would keep them safe and in school and help keep the virus from surging again.

DETROW: And we've got about 20 seconds, but we've heard plans from the White House, what they're already preparing to do for this rollout. Tell us what we know.

STEIN: Yeah. So the federal government has already bought enough vaccine to give shots to all 28 million children ages 5 to 11, along with the supplies needed, including smaller needles for those smaller arms, and enlisted more than 25,000 pediatricians and doctors and hundreds of children's hospitals. So parents should be able to get their shots for their kids in lots of places, including community health centers and even some schools.

DETROW: NPR's Rob Stein, thanks so much.

STEIN: You bet, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.