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White House prepares for the chance COVID vaccines won't protect against Omicron

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Experts say it's only a matter of time until the new omicron variant emerges in the U.S. The Biden administration is preparing for the possibility that the current COVID vaccines may not fully protect against the new variant, and all this as the delta variant continues to kill an average of a thousand people per day in this country. NPR's Allison Aubrey is here. Allison, what's known so far about whether fully vaccinated people are protected against omicron?

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Yeah, good morning. Well, the thinking is that the vaccines would provide some protection, as they have for other variants, but there's just not much data yet - only some initial reports. For instance, in Israel, there's very preliminary information reported there suggesting that fully vaccinated people infected with omicron may have only mild illness. But, you know, it's unclear, so vaccine makers are not waiting around. They're anticipating the need to alter their boosters to target omicron. Now, yesterday, President Biden said hopefully this will not be needed, but he said his administration will do all it can to help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: So that we are prepared, if needed, my team is already working with officials at Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for vaccines or boosters if needed. And I will also direct the FDA and the CDC to use the fastest process available without cutting any corners for safety.

AUBREY: He says he would spare no effort to remove all roadblocks to keep people safe.

MARTINEZ: And a lot of people have gotten their booster already, Allison. When will it be clear whether a new booster is necessary?

AUBREY: You know, right now, scientists are testing the blood of vaccinated people to determine if the antibodies in their plasma can fend off omicron. This will help determine whether people are protected. Meanwhile, vaccine makers are already working to tailor their boosters to protect against omicron. For instance, the CEO of Moderna has said that the company has already made its first DNA template, the first step to kind of making a new booster. It would likely take about three months or so to make a new shot.

MARTINEZ: Staying with boosters for a second 'cause the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention toughened its position, recommending that all adults over 18 get that booster shot. Will this help Americans against omicron?

AUBREY: You know, I think that's the hope. I mean, the CDC had previously said everyone 18 and up may get a booster. Now they're saying everyone should get a booster, just to emphasize the importance of protection against the virus. And, you know, as a country, we are in better shape than a year ago - 74% of eligible people are vaccinated with at least one shot. There are treatments, such as monoclonal antibodies, for people infected with COVID. And FDA advisers will meet today to discuss Merck's new COVID pill. The company has said it's about 30% effective at preventing serious illness or death in people with COVID.

MARTINEZ: You know, leading up to Thanksgiving, the U.S. was already seeing a rise in cases from delta. What can we expect over the coming weeks?

AUBREY: You know, there is an expectation that significant spread will continue, particularly in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation told me he projects that we'll see waves in various parts of the country through January, with about 100,000 cases a day.

ALI MOKDAD: You have states that are now going up, and you have states that are coming down. So having a rise at a different time, it will make all the surge to be leveled all the way till January.

AUBREY: So the big picture here, A, is this rise that began before Thanksgiving will likely continue through the end of January. But, of course, omicron creates some uncertainty about current projections.

MARTINEZ: Sure does. NPR's Allison Aubrey, thanks a lot.

AUBREY: Thank you, A. 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.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.