The Atlantic Daily: What We Know About Boosters

Posted by on October 15, 2021 7:30 pm
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If this booster-shot rollout is a 1,000-piece puzzle, this week a few more pieces fell into place. An independent FDA advisory panel met for two days to examine evidence for Moderna and Johnson & Johnson boosters—as well as early data on mixing and matching vaccine brands.

In short, we’re fitting together a fuller picture of how boosters can work, but parts of the puzzle are still unsolved.

Here’s what we can see clearly now.

1. Moderna boosters are on track to be approved for those at high risk or 65 and older.

Just as with Pfizer, the panel okayed a third shot of the Moderna offering for these specific groups, this time as a half-dose.

Next, the FDA needs to formally approve the recommendation. Then, the CDC gets to weigh in.

2. J&J recipients finally got some answers.

After weeks of purgatory, movement at last: The panel blessed a booster for anyone over 18 who got this one-shot vaccine, the broadest recommendation yet.

The FDA, as well as the CDC, will need to weigh in on this one as well. And seemingly sweet relief comes at a weird time …

3. The jury is still out on brand mixing.

A long-awaited study on mixing and matching vaccine brands has finally arrived. The results are early and limited—my colleague Rachel Gutman breaks them down here—but, to put it crudely, Pfizer’s and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines crushed the J&J shot as a booster.

“The NIH study tested and compared every possible combination,” Rachel writes, “and here’s the gist: If you need a booster, don’t take J&J.” Those who got J&J in the first round showed much, much higher antibody levels when given an mRNA booster than those given a second dose of J&J.

In other words, the J&J booster recommendation came “at the moment that we found out that it is quite possibly one of the worst options” when it comes to vaccine mixing, Rachel explained to me over the phone this afternoon.

The FDA panel heard these results today, but did not vote on whether to make a recommendation. That’s for another day …

4. We still don’t know a lot about boosters.

So far, boosters have been recommended for millions of Americans—but not everyone. And we still don’t know when other populations might need them. The data that could clarify this facet of the picture are limited, in part because they focus on measuring antibodies, Rachel told me, rather than how many people actually got sick in randomized controlled trials.

I asked Rachel: If the booster rollout is a TV show, where in the season are we? “Is this a one-season series?” she countered, and then joked that it could be more like “season two of The Simpsons, where it’s just going to go on forever.”

The view south to the Empire State Building and One World Trade Center, seen from a mirrored room at the Summit observation deck at One Vanderbilt
Gary Hershorn / Getty

Explore the week that was. Our senior editor Alan Taylor compiles riveting photography from around the world.

Read. You’ve got plenty of big new fiction books to choose from, including new novels from Jonathan Franzen (Crossroads), Lauren Groff (Matrix), Sally Rooney (Beautiful World, Where Are You), and Colson Whitehead (Harlem Shuffle).

If you’re looking for nonfiction, our November magazine cover story is a harrowing look at the secretive hedge fund that is killing America’s newspapers.

Watch. HBO’s Succession is back this weekend. Our critic Sophie Gilbert argues that the series is the best on television—but is currently stuck.

On the big screen, The Last Duel is an epic from the director Ridley Scott that skillfully switches perspectives to tell its story. Mass is a film about a school shooting that “that feels truthful without being exploitative,” Shirley Li writes.

Counting down the days to Halloween? Our culture writer David Sims rounds up 25 of his favorite horror movies, ranking them by scariness. How high can you go?

Listen. On this week’s episode of The Experiment, our religion reporter Emma Green sits down with the editor in chief of a Christian satire site.

On The Review, our critics debate the future of the James Bond franchise now that Daniel Craig’s run as 007 is over.


Every weekday evening, our editors guide you through the biggest stories of the day, help you discover new ideas, and surprise you with moments of delight. Subscribe to get this delivered to your inbox.

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