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Success Of COVID-19 Vaccines Ushers In Renaissance In Vaccine Technology


The CDC says about 65% of American adults have gotten at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Now, that is not far from President Biden's goal. He wants 70% of adults, American adults, to have at least one shot by the Fourth of July. The U.S. started administering shots in December, though, and we have less than two weeks to hit that benchmark. NPR's Allison Aubrey is with us now, as she often is on Mondays. Good morning, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning. It's good to be here.

KING: Good to have you. I know you've been looking at the numbers. And I wonder - what do they tell you? Will 70% of American adults have at least one shot in the next two weeks?

AUBREY: You know, at this point, I'd say not quite, at least not nationwide. As I look at the numbers this morning, about 16 states - including all of the New England states, California, Hawaii - have surpassed the goal. But only about half of adults have gotten one shot in Wyoming, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi. And in the Branson, Mo., area, where cases and hospitalizations have actually been on the rise, bucking the national trend, only about 37% of adults have gotten one dose. I spoke to the director of the NIH, the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, about areas where vaccinations lag behind.

FRANCIS COLLINS: I'm intensely concerned that here we are, at a point where we have new variants arriving, like this Delta variant which is much more contagious and probably also more dangerous - some of those communities are really at risk.

AUBREY: At risk of future outbreaks. But this is entirely preventable, given how effective the vaccines are. So there are ongoing efforts to reach people who've been holding out or have not been given easy access to the vaccine so far.

KING: Now, in the meantime, a lot of people who've been vaccinated are wondering whether we're going to need to get booster shots either this fall or possibly next fall. Ultimately, how will that decision be made? Who makes it?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, right now what's happening is that public health officials and the vaccine companies are all tracking how well immunity holds up in people who've been vaccinated. And this is going to take a while. Here's Francis Collins again.

COLLINS: We need to figure out whether the antibody response from the vaccines is going to stay at a high enough level to be protective, and we also need to ask whether the new variants that are appearing change the answer to that.

AUBREY: So there are two things under review, Noel - both the extent immunity can wane and whether variants undermine the effectiveness of the vaccine.

KING: And what's the process to figure that out?

AUBREY: Well, remember; before the vaccines were authorized, there were thousands of people in the clinical trials, so one way to gauge waning immunity is to check in with the people who were among the first to receive them. Here's Dr. Francis Collins again.

COLLINS: We are following those people, and we can start to see if somebody has a breakthrough infection, well, what was their antibody level? And that's probably something you want to try to avoid dropping down to. Pretty soon I think we'll have a better handle on that 'cause that data is being collected right now.

AUBREY: Now, so far, he says it looks pretty good; immunity seems to be holding up. But both policymakers and the vaccine companies are preparing for the possibility that boosters may be needed.

KING: So have the big vaccine companies, like Pfizer and Moderna, already started making boosters that specifically target these variants that everybody's so worried about?

AUBREY: Yes. Back in January, when it looked like the Beta variant could be a problem, Moderna quickly created a new version of its vaccine to target that variant. And within one month, they had started a clinical trial. Now, it was possible to do this so quickly, Noel, because of the technology Moderna uses. Many people now know the term mRNA or messenger RNA, and this basically entails making messenger molecules that act kind of like a software program to instruct the body to mount an immune response. And Dr. Collins says one of the benefits is that it seems to be very versatile.

COLLINS: This is one of the amazing things about the messenger RNA strategy, is it's very readily adaptable to putting together a booster that goes after a different virus variant because, basically, you just change the code to match the new threatening virus. You're just tweaking this. And otherwise, it's all the same process that's been intensely studied and seems to have worked really well.

AUBREY: Now, going forward, Noel, the companies behind this technology, including Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech, aim to use the same mRNA technology to create new vaccines beyond COVID - everything from a new flu vaccine to an HIV vaccine possibly to even cancer vaccines. In fact, there are multiple clinical trials already underway.

KING: That's really extraordinary. So the COVID-19 vaccine is the one we're all thinking about right now, but it sounds like this could just be the beginning for this mRNA technology.

AUBREY: That's right. There's a vaccine trial already started for people who have had colorectal cancer, which is one of the deadliest forms of cancer. There's typically a fairly high risk of relapse, and currently there isn't much to offer beyond standard chemotherapy. You know, I spoke to Dr. Scott Kopetz. He's an oncologist at MD Anderson in Texas. He's got patients enrolled in a trial to test whether an experimental mRNA vaccine can help prevent a relapse of this disease.

SCOTT KOPETZ: This is, you know, exciting technology. And the hope of this study is to have a vaccine to generate an immune response that can help stave off a recurrence of the cancer. So it really represents a huge opportunity in a large number of patients to improve outcomes.

AUBREY: Now, it is early days. I mean, it will likely be several years before they know whether this is beneficial. But there's been a real renaissance in vaccine research coming out of this pandemic. And, you know, it comes in tandem with lots of research dollars to treat viruses that have the potential to create another pandemic. In fact, the Biden administration announced $3.2 billion of funding last week to create new antiviral medications that could stop coronaviruses and other viruses before they can do so much harm.

KING: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks, Allison.

AUBREY: Thanks, 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.