NOEL KING, HOST:
The new COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson that will arrive at sites across the country this week is the third vaccine authorized in the U.S., but it is the first to require only one shot. On the whole, demand for vaccine still far exceeds the supply of doses available. And meanwhile, officials say the spread of new variants is, quote, "worrisome." NPR's Allison Aubrey is following all of this and joins us, as she often does on Mondays. Good morning, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: Let's start with the good stuff. How many doses of that Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be available this week?
AUBREY: 3.9 million doses are ready. Of that, the vast majority will be allocated to the states and local jurisdictions. I spoke to Claire Hannan of the Association of Immunization Managers about all the other distribution channels.
CLAIRE HANNAN: Eighty thousand are going into the retail pharmacy program, so they'll be going directly to the pharmacies. Seventy thousand doses are going to large-scale clinic sites, and then 90,000 doses are going into the FQHCs. So, you know, we should see them going into arms this week.
AUBREY: The FQHCs are the Federally Qualified Health Centers. So this certainly helps boost supplies, Noel, but so far, about 50 million people in the U.S. have received at least one dose. That's 20% of the population - of the adult population. So the country still has a very long way to go.
KING: Although it's so interesting to see those numbers tick up over time. Now, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine isn't as effective overall at preventing coronavirus illnesses when you compare it to Pfizer and Moderna. We've had reporting on that. Is there any concern that some people might say, no, I want one of the other vaccines?
AUBREY: You know, it is possible. I mean, the studies show it's about 66% effective overall in preventing COVID-19 illness compared to the 95% or so for Moderna and Pfizer. That doesn't sound so good. But what infectious disease experts keep saying and keep repeating is that this vaccine is very effective at preventing what's most important - hospitalizations and deaths, more than 90%. And with supplies so tight, Noel, there just isn't much personal choice here.
AUBREY: Your best bet is to take what is available first. That is the case that Dr. Fauci made yesterday on NBC.
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ANTHONY FAUCI: All three of them are really quite good. And people should take the one that's most available to them. If you go to a place and you have J&J and that's the one that's available now, I would take it. And if I would go to a place where they had J&J, I would have no hesitancy whatsoever to take it.
AUBREY: He says, really, the time is of the essence here. The goal is to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible.
KING: So in the meantime, public health officials are concerned about these new variants that are emerging. And so you've learned that vaccine makers are in the process of developing booster shots to cover them. Do you think this means a future where we are all getting COVID shots the way we get a flu shot, like, every October, November?
AUBREY: Well, it is possible. It's not exactly clear what will be needed, but all the vaccine makers are working on this. The virus has mutated, as we know. We hear about the variants that emerged in South Africa and Brazil. And if you look at the results of the Johnson & Johnson trials, it was studied in South Africa and Latin America and was found to be about 61% to 64% effective against mild to moderate disease. So if the variants from these regions were to spread, more vaccine makers could retool the vaccines to make them more effective. I spoke to infectious disease Dr. Judy Guzman-Cottrill of Oregon Health & Science University about this. And she says exactly what you were saying. Just as the flu virus mutates annually and the vaccine is adjusted annually...
JUDY GUZMAN-COTTRILL: You could envision something similar for the COVID-19 vaccine next winter where the vaccine covers many different strains or many different spike proteins so that our bodies make antibodies against different spike proteins, which will cover many variants.
AUBREY: So the final chapter of vaccinating against coronavirus has not been written, and vaccine makers are just trying to stay ahead of this.
KING: Let me ask you about some news that will hopefully be useful. So the CDC says that people who have been vaccinated should still wear masks and avoid crowds, which has led some people to say, but then what is the point of the vaccine? Can you help with that one?
AUBREY: Sure. I mean, the majority of the country has not been vaccinated yet, so lots of people are still vulnerable. And at this moment, it is still not entirely clear if people who've gotten the vaccine can get infected and spread the virus. So even though they're protected from getting sick, they could play a role in transmission. Now, the risk of this seems quite low given the initial data that's coming in from Israel and elsewhere. Yet, Judy Guzman-Cottrill says the science is still unfolding, so you have to hang tight. So per the CDC guidance, vaccinated people should continue to mask and take other precautions, such as avoiding crowds.
GUZMAN-COTTRILL: Until these transmission studies are completed and I've reviewed them myself, I'm still wearing a mask when I'm around other people because I know that this will protect those who are not vaccinated around me and including my own children.
AUBREY: And she has been vaccinated. She says that being vaccinated should give us more freedom. She says her parents are receiving their second dose soon, and she actually plans to travel to visit them and will give them a hug but will stay masked and take precautions as she travels and visits.
KING: OK. And then lastly, we had seen a couple of weeks in which the number of new cases was going down, down, down. But now in the past few days, it's plateaued. Who is worried about this, and what are they worried about?
AUBREY: Yeah. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has said this is very concerning. And because of this plateau, it's too soon to lift all the restrictions in place, certainly too soon to lift mask mandates, as four states have done - Montana, Iowa, North Dakota, Mississippi. Here's Dr. Fauci again.
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FAUCI: Our baseline of daily infections now, even though it's way down from where it was, is down to around 70,000. But you've got to get that baseline down lower than it is now, particularly in light of the fact that we have some worrisome variants. So it's really too premature right now to be pulling back too much.
AUBREY: His message is to stay vigilant.
KING: And the National Institutes of Health has this new initiative to expand research on long haulers. These are people who get symptoms from COVID that last for months and months. What has their research found?
AUBREY: A new study from the University of Washington found six months post COVID, about a third of people enrolled in their study had lingering symptoms, including fatigue. I spoke to the author of the study, Dr. Helen Chu.
HELEN CHU: It did surprise us because a lot of the previous studies were done in hospitalized individuals. And so in those studies, they did find high rates of persistent symptoms. But ours was a study that was primarily outpatients, so those who had mild disease and were never seen in clinics or definitely were not hospitalized. So they were really people who have had a mild case of coronavirus.
AUBREY: Yet they continue to have these symptoms six months later. It's not clear why. She says the next step is to take blood samples, look to see if they can identify a signature, some sort of inflammatory signature, or something else that can explain this.
KING: Just a lot we still don't know. NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks, Allison.
AUBREY: Thanks, Noel.
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