Coronavirus Briefing: Boosting older teens

And supporting a generation of bereaved children.,


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ImageDaily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.
Daily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.Credit…The New York Times

The F.D.A. today authorized Pfizer booster shots for 16- and 17-year-olds, at least six months after they received their second shot of that vaccine. The move clears the way for several million teenagers to receive an additional shot.

The C.D.C. promptly endorsed the F.D.A.’s action. So far, the other two coronavirus vaccines, from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, are only authorized for adults.

The agency’s decision comes as a first batch of laboratory tests suggests that the Omicron variant seems to dull the effectiveness of two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

Pfizer said yesterday that tests with blood samples from people who had received only two doses showed much lower levels of virus-fighting antibodies against Omicron than against an earlier version of the virus. Antibodies are the immune system’s first line of defense against the virus, and the results suggest that two doses may not be sufficient to protect against infection.

But with a booster, the level of antibodies working to neutralize the Omicron variant were comparable to those combating the original variant after two doses, the company said.

Support for boosters has been growing among public health experts in the face of the Omicron variant. Data from both Israel and Britain has shown that an extra dose can sharply lower a person’s likelihood of catching the coronavirus and getting sick, leading many countries to expand their booster programs.

But the W.H.O. cautioned about the risks that booster campaigns presented, as tens of millions of people in lower-income countries have not had access to a single dose.

There is a risk that wealthy countries will go back to hoarding vaccine supplies to confront Omicron, said Dr. Kate O’Brien, the W.H.O.’s vaccine director. Currently, more boosters are being administered than first shots around the world.

But Andrea Taylor, who tracks vaccine production for the Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University, said that while it was hard to know the true status of vaccine supply and delivery because of a lack of transparency, booster campaigns should not significantly affect supplies for lower-income countries.

“Globally, we are producing a staggering 1.5 billion doses a month, and we theoretically have enough doses now to provide boosters across wealthy countries, as well as first and second doses to at least 40 percent of the population in other countries,” she said. “In reality, however, these doses are not where they need to be.”

“Too many of them are sitting unused in wealthy countries,” she said, adding that estimates showed that the world’s wealthiest nations would have about 770 million excess doses on hand at the end of this month.

An estimated 167,000 children have lost parents or caregivers to Covid-19. For every four Covid deaths in the U.S., it is estimated that one child is left without a caregiver, a loss that has more severely affected communities of color.

While Congress has allocated trillions of dollars to combat the pandemic, the Biden administration and lawmakers haven’t yet created initiatives to help these children. But behind the scenes, as my colleague Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports, a bipartisan coalition of experts — lead by two former governors — have been meeting with White House officials, urging them to do more.

That group, the Covid Collaborative, is asking President Biden to initiate a national campaign to identify these children and take steps to improve their emotional and economic well-being. In a report released today, the group recommended offering them mental health care and creating a “Covid-19 Bereaved Children’s Fund,” similar to a fund established after the Sept. 11 attacks, to provide up to $10,000 to families in need.

The collaborative envisions $2 billion to $3 billion for the bereavement fund, possibly supplemented by money from private foundations. It would help parents struggling to make rent payments, boost their children’s academic performance and find the right therapy at a reasonable cost, among other things.

Some parents whose spouses were frontline workers say they would like at least some recognition from Washington that their loved ones died while trying to protect others.

“You invite athletes to the White House because they’ve won a championship; why not invite families who lost their loved one because they went into a hospital, they went into a school that wasn’t really safe?” said Pamela Addison, whose late husband was a hospital speech pathologist. She runs a support group called Young Widows and Widowers of Covid-19. “You see when a military person dies there is this big celebration of their life and the kids know their parent is a hero. Our kids need that.”

I brought today’s question to Carl Zimmer, who covers science for The Times. (If you have a question, you can fill out this form.)

Soon after the variant was identified, it began to be discovered all over the world, which implies that it was already widely dispersed. Why does it take identification in one place to jump-start the identification elsewhere? Are variants usually not identified when people are tested or hospitalized? — Margaret Pierpont, New York, N.Y.

Carl: A positive Covid test only tells you that you have SARS-CoV-2 inside you. It doesn’t tell you what kind of SARS-CoV-2 is in there. For that, you need to take an extra step and run a test that can detect a variant. There are ways to test for variants we already know about, like Alpha and Delta. But the only way to detect a new variant is to sequence all the genetic material in a virus sample. Only a fraction of positive tests get fully sequenced. In South Africa and Botswana, some very perceptive doctors and scientists noticed something odd about a few cases and decided to look closer. It turned out those cases were caused by a previously unknown variant, which we now call Omicron. Once other countries knew what to look for, they started finding Omicron in their own samples.

The Omicron variant feels like Covid starting all over again. Hopelessness is what I feel the most, and, with winter setting in, I can no longer ride my Harley or work my garden, so it’s particularly depressing. I lost my dream job as an art director and haven’t been able to find a way back into my career. I currently drive a delivery truck at a fraction of my old salary. I have one friend who is vaccinated that I feel comfortable hanging out with, so we listen to records and drink a lot together in his apartment. Because the continually mutating variants may never cease, and because the anti-vaxxers are prohibiting herd immunity, I fear we will never leave the coronavirus in the past.

— Patrick Fox, Menomonee Falls, Wis.

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