Nov 30, 2021 - Health

Omicron fuels the case for COVID boosters

Illustration of a syringe as a rocket propelling through the atmosphere

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The emergence of the Omicron COVID variant is turbocharging the push for vaccine boosters, and experts say a booster may soon become a requirement to be considered "fully vaccinated."

Why it matters: Booster uptake has been sluggish so far, and adding a third shot to vaccine mandates would be highly controversial.

What they're saying: "It's now abundantly clear we all need the boosters," Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told Axios.

  • But the estimated 83 million vaccinated Americans who haven't gotten a booster are "more and more vulnerable every day to infection and potentially serious illness with their waning immunity," he said.
  • Bob Wachter, chairman of the University of California, San Francisco Department of Medicine, told Axios he expects vaccine mandates will soon include requiring boosters.
  • "If there is some level of immune evasion, but the vaccines continue to have some level of efficacy — which I think is likely — I think the 'boosters as part of mandate discussion' moves from a multi-month discussion to a multi-week discussion," Wachter said.

Driving the news: The CDC strengthened its COVID booster recommendation Monday, saying all adults should get a booster dose. The agency previously said only that adults "may" get the shot.

  • It came just hours after a national address by President Biden, who urged Americans to get vaccinated and get booster shots if they are eligible.
  • And the Washington Post reported that Pfizer plans to request authorization soon for coronavirus boosters for 16- and 17-year-olds. The company did not respond to Axios' request for comment.

The big picture: While experts said there is much we don't yet know about the variant, they believe it's unlikely that the virus will be able to totally evade the vaccines — which bolsters the booster case.

  • "It won't blow vaccines away, but it could compromise protection to a degree that is yet unquantifiable," Cornell virologist John Moore told Axios. "It would make sense for anyone who's been holding off on getting their booster to do so because it will give an additional kick to antibody levels."
  • "We're trying to put a wall between infection and serious illness, hospitalization and death. These vaccines as we have them now represent the best opportunity to do that," Osterholm said.

What to watch: "The other warning sign that will be watched for is, 'Is there a significant increase in the number of hospitalized vaccine recipients who have Omicron?'" Moore said.

  • "If you start to see a wave of severely ill, vaccinated people with Omicron, that would tell us a lot. And that would of course take many, many weeks before it becomes visible."
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