Osterholm: 'Stay current' on upcoming COVID booster shots

A needle with a vaccine is shown in a close-up photo
Nurse Lydia Holly prepares a child's COVID-19 vaccine dose, on Nov. 3, 2021, at Children's National Hospital in Washington. U.S. regulators are urging drugmaker Pfizer to apply for emergency authorization for a two-dose regimen of its COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 and under while awaiting data on a three-dose course, aiming to clear the way for the shots as soon as late February.
Carolyn Kaster | AP

Upgraded COVID-19 vaccines are on the way. On Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration approved new, reformulated versions of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

Michael Osterholm
University of Minnesota infectious disease specialist Michael Osterholm
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota

Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and director of Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, joins MPR News host Cathy Wurzer to share what that means for our immunity against new and future strains of the virus.

The following is a transcript of the conversation edited for clarity. Listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.

How do these reformulated vaccines work?

Well, they actually work the same way as the vaccines that were used up until now, except for the fact that they include specific changes to the spike protein — that material that we try to develop the antibodies against, which will then prevent that virus from actually entering our cells. And now it is reformulated to include the mutations that we have seen with this virus’ ba.4, ba.5 mutation. So it's exactly the same vaccine, with the exception of accounting for that.

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These vaccines have been tested in mice. And as you know, the director of the CDC says waiting for more human trial data could lead to an outdated vaccine at a time when we're at risk of a fall surge. Some in the medical community of question that approach suggests that folks wait for more data. Where are you on this?

Well, let me cut through the fog of vaccines right now. Because I think this has really been an unfortunate situation where the public is being whipsawed back and forth.

The most important message that anyone can take away from this interview is just the need to get vaccinated, regardless of which vaccine you get. The data are clear and compelling now that if you are vaccinated, and with at least two boosters, meaning four doses in total, you have a significantly lower risk of serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths. And so that's the most important thing.

I think the prediction that we're going to have a surge potentially this fall is not based on any meaningful data. As you know, I've been talking about all along the inability for us to actually predict what's going to happen with this virus. So I would be worried about this moment, and that something this fall. And we're still seeing in this country, 500 deaths a day due to COVID. It makes it the number four cause of death overall. And so the most important messages stay current.

The second thing is this vaccine is coming out is safe. It's no different than the other vaccines that we've had to use to date. The challenge is, is it going to work better? Is it going to really stop the infections more effectively than the previous vaccines? And I think that is open to question.

So to me, it's if I have a choice right now, I'll take either vaccine as long as I get a vaccine to keep myself currently vaccinated.

Another challenge to the resources for a vaccine rollout this fall are not what they were even last year?

We have a perfect storm in the world of vaccines that I've not seen in my almost 48 years in the business. First of all, we've surely got the situation now we have two different vaccines for the purposes of COVID. And by two I don't mean to Pfizer and Moderna. I mean, you have the previous U.S. vaccine, which is the one you have to use if you're starting somebody for the first time in being vaccinated — because they're a higher dosage vaccine than the boosters we have now. So we've got to keep both those vaccines separate.

And you're right about rolling out a campaign. We're in the middle of trying to vaccinate for monkeypox with this intradermal method. That type of administration is much more complicated.

We've got polio challenges right now in this country, where we have many pockets of under-vaccinated people. We're now concerned polio virus is spreading right here in the state of Minnesota, only 23 percent of young Somali children are vaccinated against polio.

Then on top of it rolling out a vaccine for the flu season. You know, if we if the Southern Hemisphere was any indication of what might happen here during their winter through March, April in May in Australia, they had one of their worst flu seasons they've had in many years. This is also something we're trying to do right now here in Minnesota draw a flu vaccine.

All of these vaccines are challenging us tremendously, trying to get them all done and there are no resources, the feds have not provided additional new resources. So health care providers in the state and local health departments are trying to get the vaccinations done with no new support whatsoever.

What do you suggest folks do? Contact their doctor? Just try to get vaccine as quickly as possible, especially when this COVID booster is out? What's the timing of that for most folks?

You will be able to get the new vaccine dose as early as next week. If you want to get it you should get it just like you’ve gotten your previous vaccines. At clinics and contacting local and state public health agencies for what they're doing to provide vaccines. The most important message — again — is get it. If it's been at least four months since you've been vaccinated before, you need it right now. With the new vaccine, you can get it as early as two months after the last dose, I think waiting a little bit longer is better.

We have a significant amount of activity right now in Minnesota right here. I know of more friends, colleagues and acquaintances that are infected with this virus now than at any time I've known since the pandemic began. So now is the time to get it. Don't wait. Again, this could be what can keep you out of the hospital can keep you from becoming seriously ill and keep you from dying.

When we were talking back in July, you told me that COVID is one of these situations where the public is done with it, but the virus is not done with us. I know you've said that a number of different times. I'm wondering, has the public's lax behavior around the virus heighten the need for better vaccines in this particular case?

We clearly need better vaccines, however, I guess the real question is, “what does better mean?” I think the vaccine that we have coming may have a slight advantage over the one we had previously. But we really need are completely different vaccines that ultimately will stop you from getting infected. That means you don't transmit the virus and surely then keeps you from becoming seriously ill.

Right now we don't have those. These vaccines are powerful tools and keeping people from getting seriously ill or dying. But we clearly need new and better vaccines. Our group happens to be leading an international effort to come up with a roadmap for these new, better vaccines. But they're not forthcoming now. They're there, they're at least several years off at the earliest. So in the meantime, we're gonna have to learn how to live with this virus in this kind of boosting situations. But as I've also said to you, we cannot boost our way out of this pandemic.

Only 26 percent of Americans 65 years of age and older have had all their boosters to booster doses. Why? Why can't we get the remainder vaccinated? Because that's one of the most important reasons why we continue to see these 500 deaths a day are people who are just not vaccinated.

Are you still wearing a mask? A well-fitted mask?

I absolutely do. I'd say actually not just well fitted, I wear an N95 respirator. I'm fully vaccinated. And when I'm in public settings, I do that. When in private settings, when we entertain a few people for dinner, we test for several days a day, before they come no one who has symptoms, including even sniffles can come. And so far we're managing the pandemic to that regard it can be done. But it surely means that you can't just ignore the virus. It's here, and it is taking a toll.

Before you go, by the way, you mentioned that you're not sure about a fall surge?

Yeah, anybody that predicts what's happening with COVID, more than three to five weeks out, probably also has a bridge to sell, so be careful. And I keep hearing my colleagues say this, but as you know, you've been following us over the months that we've been involved with this pandemic. How many times have people made predictions for which it didn't come true?

A famous one that was made … this past spring that we're going to see another major summer hit in the southern sunbelt states, and everyone get ready. Never happened. As near as you may recall, I suggested we don't know that would happen and it didn't. So I think we have to be very careful with this virus. We just don't know what the next shoe to drop is.

Listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.