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J&J Says Its Booster Shot Provides Increased Protection From COVID-19

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson now says a booster shot to its COVID vaccine will improve immunity. Joining us now with details - NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Good morning, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we've been hearing a lot lately about a booster shot for Pfizer's vaccine; now this news from Johnson & Johnson. What can you tell us?

STEIN: Yeah, Johnson & Johnson is releasing data that the company says supports the idea that a second shot can provide people with stronger protection against getting really sick.

MARTIN: Just to interrupt - just to remind people, Johnson & Johnson, of course, was just a single shot, unlike the other vaccines.

STEIN: Exactly. Exactly. So this would be adding a second shot, like the other ones have been all the - all along. But this would give a second shot, which you can call a booster. You know, and there isn't a lot of detail, but the company says giving people that second shot two months after the first boosted protection against moderate-to-severe disease from about 75% to about 100%. In addition, the company says waiting to give that second shot until six months after the first shot boosts antibody levels even more than at two months by twelvefold versus four- to sixfold. That suggests that waiting longer for that second shot could provide even stronger protection. I talked about this with Dan Barouch at Harvard, who - he works with Johnson & Johnson.

DAN BAROUCH: So a booster at two months is a substantial increase in protection, and a booster at six months gives an increase in immune responses that is even greater than a booster at two months.

MARTIN: That sounds good, Rob, doesn't it?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: So how strong is the evidence here?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, it's important to note that the company put this out in a press release this morning. It hasn't released any studies that have been published or reviewed by other scientists. So that makes it hard to really fully evaluate it. But I've been in touch with a couple other researchers who say it does look like this supports giving people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine a booster. Saad Omer is a vaccine researcher at Yale.

SAAD OMER: I think a lot of people were waiting for data on additional doses of J&J. There was concern amongst those people who had received a single dose about less-than-equivalent protection compared to the other vaccines. So I think it will be well-received by those who got the J&J dose.

STEIN: But Omer says there still are really - some really important questions, like whether the protection from a booster would wane over time.

MARTIN: Right. So with this news, can you just summarize for us - where do things stand now with boosters for all three vaccines?

STEIN: Right. Johnson & Johnson is submitting this new data to the Food and Drug Administration to consider. Moderna has also started submitting data for its vaccine booster. But the big announcement that we're expecting any time now is about the Pfizer booster. An FDA advisory panel on Friday recommended that the agency authorize a booster for people age 65 and older and for other people at high risk. Now, that recommendation fell far short of the Biden administration's original announcement and the company's request to get a green light for boosters for anyone age 16 and older. But if the FDA goes along with this narrower recommendation, it would still significantly increase the number of people officially eligible for boosters. Right now, it's limited to people with weak immune systems. And CDC advisers will start meeting tomorrow to further define who should get boosters, and the booster shots could start rolling out more widely as soon as later this week.

MARTIN: Wow, OK. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. We appreciate it, Rob. Thank you.

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