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The FDA may soon authorize a COVID booster for kids ages 5 to 11

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Pfizer and BioNTech asked the Food and Drug Administration today to authorize the first COVID-19 vaccine booster shot for children age 5 to 11.

NPR's Rob Stein joins us now to talk about this. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, there. Doing, Rob (ph)?

SCHMITZ: Good. Until now, boosters have only been available for adults and kids as young as 12, so this would make these younger kids eligible for a booster for the first time. What are the companies saying about why these younger kids should get a booster?

STEIN: Yes, other companies say their research indicates two things. No. 1 - a third shot of their low-dose pediatric vaccine six months after the second shot appears to be very safe for kids ages 5 to 11. And second, a booster can pump up their antibodies big time, including against the omicron variant. And so a booster should help counter any waning of protection that has occurred among these kids, just like in older kids and adults.

SCHMITZ: Do other experts agree with this?

STEIN: Well, the first thing I should say is that all the experts say we need to see the data. So far, all we know about this is what the companies have said in a news release. That said, many say that it'll probably be a good idea to make boosters available for these kids given the fading protection we've seen in older age groups.

Here's Dr. Yvonne Maldonado at Stanford University. She's helping the companies test their vaccine and advises the American Academy of Pediatrics.

YVONNE MALDONADO: Over time, immunity to the vaccine wanes. And we know that that happens in children as well. So the data really right now support boosters to maintain immunity, so I would vaccinate my 5- to 11-year-olds and boost them.

STEIN: But, you know, Rob, others aren't so sure. They say the vaccines are still protecting kids from getting severely ill. I talked to Dr. Paul Offit at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia about this. He advises the Food and Drug Administration.

PAUL OFFIT: If there is clear benefit for a third dose - and to me, the definition of benefit is enhanced protection against serious illness - then, of course, get the third dose. But absent that, I don't see a compelling reason to give a third dose now.

SCHMITZ: So Rob, what happens now?

STEIN: You know, the FDA will review the company's case and could convene a meeting of the agency's outside advisers to help make a decision. Then the CDC would weigh in. And in the past, all that's happened, you know, pretty quickly.

SCHMITZ: OK. So do we have any idea how much demand there'd be for boosters for 5- to 11-year-olds?

STEIN: Some parents will probably be very eager to get their kids boosters - you know, many of the same parents who rushed out to get their kids the first two shots. But, you know, Rob, that's a minority of parents. Less than a third of parents of kids ages 5 to 11 have gotten their kids the first two shots, and less than a quarter of children ages 12 to 17 have gotten boosters, even though they've been eligible for months. So, you know, given the fact that the omicron surge has faded and kids don't typically get as sick as adults, it may be a tough sell for many parents.

SCHMITZ: While we're on the subject of kids, where do things stand with getting a vaccine for the youngest kids - those under the age of 5?

STEIN: Well, this week, we're also expecting Moderna to seek authorization for a low-dose version of its vaccines for kids as young as 6 months old. Moderna says two shots of that vaccine look safe and effective at boosting antibodies high enough to protect kids. But, you know, two shots don't look that great for actually protecting kids against getting sick from omicron, so that's raised questions about whether kids will actually need three shots. And that's what happened with Pfizer's vaccine, so Pfizer started testing a third dose. And, you know, at one point, we expected this vaccine for young kids to be available this month, but it looks now like the FDA probably won't take this up until June.

SCHMITZ: That's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Rob, thanks.

STEIN: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.