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Everyone 16- and 17-year-olds can now get a Pfizer COVID vaccine booster

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today, the Food and Drug Administration expanded the authorization given to Pfizer and BioNTech to distribute booster doses of their COVID-19 vaccine. The booster had been available to anyone 18 and older, and now the CDC has endorsed the move, it will be available to anyone 16 and older. Joining me to discuss this decision is NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. And, Joe, first of all, how did the FDA explain its decision?

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The FDA said in a statement that it based its analysis on data it had already looked at for people 18 and older, and that data showed that a booster would raise antibody levels for that group. And there's also data that makes it clear that antibody levels do decline for people 16 and older. So the FDA concluded that the risk of some rare bad effect - like heart inflammation you may have heard of called myocarditis - was outweighed by the benefit of being protected from getting seriously ill with COVID-19. The FDA also said getting as many people boosted who are eligible for one as well as getting everyone who hasn't been vaccinated vaccinated will be important to prevent a wave of COVID illness in the coming months

CORNISH: Is lowering the age someone can get a booster by just two years really, like, that important or significant?

PALCA: Well, I put that question to Kirsten Lyke. She's at the Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

KIRSTEN LYKE: In light of omicron, it is an important decision.

PALCA: Because from the scraps of evidence that have been emerging about whether the current crop of vaccines will work against omicron, having antibodies boosted to the highest possible level is the most likely way people will be protected.

LYKE: But it's - I wouldn't say controversial, but there is a difference of opinion as to whether young people need a booster, given that their immune responses are already quite high.

PALCA: So not a bad idea to give young people a booster but maybe not necessary - although I would add here that a study from Israel published yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine showed a benefit for people 16 to 29 years old from a booster.

CORNISH: What's known about whether even younger children will need boosters?

PALCA: Yeah, it's probably too soon to say about that. The vaccine hasn't been around all that long for younger children, and so there's not that good of a database to make a decision on.

CORNISH: In the meantime, Pfizer's CEO has been suggesting that a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine could be useful further down the road. What else did he have to say?

PALCA: Well, Albert Bourla, who is Pfizer's CEO, suggested early on that a third dose of his vaccine might be necessary, and he was somewhat prescient there. Of course, it's also the case that giving out boosters means selling more vaccines, and that's been a major source of revenue for Pfizer. So it's probably premature to speculate on a fourth dose, but it's possible that one may be needed.

CORNISH: Is it controversial? I mean, it seemed like there was a lot of chatter about the fact that richer nations were giving out boosters before other countries could get really mass distribution of a vaccine.

PALCA: Yes. That's exactly right. Many less-well-off countries around the world were upset when the United States and others were giving out booster shots when they weren't able to get - they had very low vaccination levels, in part, because boosters were using up the available supply of vaccine. So there's a vaccine equity argument, but Kirsten Lyke says there's a pragmatic reason to give out vaccines around the world. She says the dangerous variants tend to emerge in places around the world with lower vaccination rates than we have in this country, giving the virus an opportunity to mutate.

LYKE: If we're going to get out of this in a reasonable amount of time, I think we have to distribute vaccines more equitably abroad.

PALCA: Yeah. Yeah. But that's been a tough thing to accomplish, unfortunately.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Joe Palca with the latest. Thank you so much for your reporting.

PALCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.