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Health officials encourage vaccinations as U.S. waits for arrival of omicron

NOEL KING, HOST:

Public health officials have confirmed cases of the omicron variant in at least 20 countries. Those same officials are trying to determine how effective coronavirus vaccines are against this new variant. Here's Stephane Bancel, the CEO of Moderna, talking on CNBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNBC BROADCAST)

STEPHANE BANCEL: Given the large number of mutations, it's highly possible that the efficacy of the vaccine, all of them, is going down. But we need to wait for the data to know if this is true. And how much is it going down? I believe it's going to take two to six weeks to really know.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey has been following this story. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So we have the CEO of Moderna saying, essentially, we need to wait a couple weeks and see. What was the reaction to that? What else did he say?

AUBREY: Well, Moderna's Stephane Bancel pointed out what many scientists have already noted - that there are lots of mutations on the spike protein of the new variant. Now, this is the part of the virus that kind of opens the door and enables the virus to enter our cells and infect us. The vaccine works to stop that. So given these mutations and the quick spread in South Africa, Bancel said the vaccines could be much less effective and may need to be modified. Now, Moderna has already begun work on an omicron-specific booster, but this will likely take several months. And his comments were kind of interpreted as bad news.

KING: So he is the CEO of a pharmaceutical company. What about public health officials more broadly? Do they share concerns about the vaccine?

AUBREY: Well, many people say it's just too soon to tell, and that's kind of the moment that we're in. But, you know, not everyone completely agrees with Moderna's CEO. The physician-scientist who co-founded BioNTech and, together with Pfizer, developed the other COVID vaccine, sounded a different note. He told The Wall Street Journal that while omicron may lead to more infections in vaccinated people, he predicted people will be protected against serious illness. And Dr. Anthony Fauci made the same point yesterday at a White House briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: Although partial immune escape may occur, vaccines and particularly boosters give you a degree of cross-protection. So there's every reason to believe, as we talk about boosters, when you get a level high enough, that you are going to get at least some degree of cross-protection, particularly against severe disease.

AUBREY: Now, to help figure this out, scientists are doing a bunch of things. They're testing the plasma of vaccinated people to see if antibodies in the blood can neutralize or fend off omicron. This work is ongoing, but it may be a few weeks before there are some firm answers.

KING: There are, at the moment, no cases of omicron in the U.S. that we know of. Are there systems in place to look for them?

AUBREY: Yes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expanding its surveillance program. The agency has stepped up testing at busy international airports, including JFK, Newark, also San Francisco and Atlanta, in an effort to detect the omicron variant. Here's CDC Director Rochelle Walensky. She was speaking at a White House briefing yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROCHELLE WALENSKY: This program allows for increased COVID testing for specific international arrivals, increasing our capacity to identify those with COVID-19 on arrival to the United States.

AUBREY: Now, already in place, Noel, is a requirement that international travelers coming to the U.S. get a negative COVID test result before flying. Currently, that test can be done up to three days before departure for fully vaccinated passengers. But the CDC is in the process of changing that, likely to one day before departure, just to increase the likelihood of being able to identify a positive case.

KING: So as all of this is going on, we're now seeing a really big push for people to get boosters, aren't we?

AUBREY: That's right. I mean, the belief is that boosters will just really help shore up protection at a time when immunity may be waning, when there's uncertainty about omicron. Just yesterday, Pfizer said it will ask the FDA to make 16- and 17-year-olds eligible for the booster shot. Right now, boosters are authorized for people 18 and up.

And there's another potential tool to fight COVID, too. FDA advisers voted yesterday in favor of authorizing the new antiviral pill from Merck that would be taken at home. Now, the agency does usually follow the advice of its advisers. So if it's authorized, the drug is intended for people with mild to moderate illness who are at high risk of developing severe COVID. It's supposed to be taken within five days of first symptoms to help reduce the risk of serious illness.

KING: All right - good information. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.