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Johnson & Johnson Says A Booster Shot For Its Vaccine May Have Big Benefits

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Johnson & Johnson says it has evidence that people who got the company's COVID-19 vaccine could benefit from a booster. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now with the details. Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So we've heard that people who got the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines will probably be getting boosters, but a Johnson & Johnson booster had been up in the air. Why is that, and what's new?

STEIN: So the Biden administration announced plans last week to start offering everyone who got the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines boosters starting next month, you know, assuming the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC sign off on the plan. But federal officials have been waiting for data from Johnson & Johnson about whether boosters would be a good idea for that vaccine, too. And that's what's new, that Johnson & Johnson says it now has that data. The company says it looked at antibody levels in people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and then got a second shot six months later. And within a week, the company says antibodies shot up ninefold. And the company says that shows giving millions of people who got the J & J vaccine shot a booster eight months later could help protect them, too.

FADEL: And how strong is that evidence?

STEIN: You know, I talked to several independent experts about this. And the first thing to note is that the company hasn't released much detail about the new data. The company says two papers have been submitted to be posted online, but that hasn't happened yet. And even when it does, the research won't have been reviewed by independent experts. The study focused on just 17 people and just showed that antibody levels were boosted. The assumption is that would translate into stronger protection, but there's no way to know that until lots of people actually get boosters that are followed for a while to see what actually happens.

You know, all that said, the experts say a ninefold increase in antibodies is pretty good and a pretty good indication that a booster would help. Here's Saad Omer. He's a researcher at Yale.

SAAD OMER: It would be reasonable to say that, yes, you know, have at least two doses of J & J or, you know, have at least one more dose for those who've received a single dose, including the option of having another J & J.

FADEL: So do people who received the Johnson & Johnson shot need a booster?

STEIN: Yeah, that's a good question. You know, the initial study suggested that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine may not offer quite as strong protection as the Moderna and Pfizer shots, though it still is quite good at keeping people from getting really sick or dying. But some more recent research has suggested that the protection from the J & J shot may actually be holding up quite well against the delta variant. So it's been unclear whether a booster is really needed.

But you know, the company says it's planning to submit the new data to the FDA as part of the agency's considerations about authorizing boosters for everyone just in case it's needed. Because you know, we are seeing protection from the other vaccines which were administered earlier starting to wane.

FADEL: Right. So where do things stand with boosters overall?

STEIN: You know, other countries have started giving boosters, and in this country, doctors have started giving boosters to people with weakened immune systems. And as we mentioned, the Biden administration has already announced plans to start offering boosters to everyone who got the Pfizer and Moderna shots starting September 20. Federal officials have stressed that so far the vaccines still are really good at keeping people from getting really sick and dying. But there is evidence that the protection has started to wane, especially against the highly contagious delta variant.

FADEL: Right.

STEIN: So the FDA has started looking at the data supporting the need for boosters, and the CDC is scheduled to take a look at this next week. And the assumption is, boosters will start coming for millions of people pretty soon.

FADEL: NPR's health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you.

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