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Andy Larsen: The latest on booster shots for adults and vaccines for younger teens

And one more: Will the Biden administration’s move on patents lead to more countries producing vaccines.

(Peter Hamlin | AP illustration) Will children be able to get COVID-19 vaccines?

Dr. Anthony Fauci said recently that we’re in the “bottom of the sixth inning” when it comes to our battle against the coronavirus.

I’d like to think we’re a little beyond that, but I get his point — despite restrictions ending in Utah, the coronavirus remains prevalent in our communities. And new news is still coming thick and fast in that battle, especially when it comes to vaccines.

Three new significant pieces about COVID-19 vaccines hit headlines in recent days, and I figured it might help to interpret what they’re actually likely to mean for folks here in Utah. So let’s dig in, beyond the headlines, to talk about what’s really going on.

Pfizer vaccine approved for Canadian kids 12-15

(Elaine Thompson | AP file photo) U.S. and Canadian flags fly atop the Peace Arch at Peace Arch Historical State Park on the border with Canada in 2020. Canada will begin giving COVID-19 vaccines to kids ages 12 to 15. The U.S. is expected to follow suit.

Health Canada, essentially the Department of Health for Canada, approved the Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds Wednesday. Officials did that off of trial results from 2,260 adolescents in that age group who volunteered for a study, half of whom got a placebo.

Among the 1,130 kids who were vaccinated, exactly zero of them became infected with COVID-19; in other words, the vaccine proved 100% effective. Researchers analyzed levels of antibodies in the kids who were vaccinated, and found roughly 76% more antibodies in the 12- to 15-year-old kids than they had found in those ages 16 to 25 tested earlier.

What about side effects? Well, kids got mild side effects but nothing to worry about: 90% had pain in their arm, 77% experienced fatigue, 75% got a headache, 49% had chills, and 24% got a fever. Other adverse conditions were reported in the same quantity for the youths who were vaccinated and those who got the placebo. Most of the kids in the trial were tracked for at least two months after their second dose, and none of them had blood clots, allergic reactions, etc.

In short, officials decided that the Pfizer vaccine was just as safe for 12- to 15-year-olds as it is for those age 16-plus, and gave authorization for it to be used in that group.

Now, as you know, the risk of a child of that age dying from the coronavirus is also rare. The latest estimates put it at about 0.002%. But kids of that age still can transmit the disease to others, and, of course, we’re still worried about long-term effects of COVID that happen at significantly higher rates than death. The cost-benefit analysis for getting vaccinated is closer for children than it is for adults, but it still leans significantly in favor of the shot.

The U.S. will likely being following suit within “several days,” Fauci told NBC’s “Today” show Wednesday. Likely within days, you’ll be able to schedule vaccination appointments for adolescents of that age — just in time for summer camp.

U.S. supports giving vaccine patents to the world

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A vial of saline and the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the Woods Cross High School pop-up clinic by Nomi Health.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced that it supported the waiver of intellectual property protections of the vaccine to promote vaccine development and manufacturing in other countries. The idea here is pretty straightforward: If companies in other countries know the recipe for making the vaccine, they’ll be able to make some for themselves, use it, and save hundreds of thousands of lives in places like India, where the virus is exploding.

Unfortunately, reality isn’t that simple; the patents aren’t the problem here. The chokepoints in making the vaccine aren’t protected ideas, but physical materials. Countries need more plastic bags — a bag called a bioreactor bag is used to make the vaccine, but it turns out that the U.S. makes most of those and is using all of them. Chilean tree bark turns out to be a huge aspect of production, and it is highly annoying to come up with enough Chilean tree bark to make billions of vaccines. There are more technical problems, but those are two.

Giving away the patents might remove one ideological hurdle to making more vaccine, but it doesn’t remove any of the production hurdles. And even ideological hurdles aren’t really real: Moderna announced in October that it wouldn’t enforce any of the patents related to the coronavirus vaccine. The door has been open all along.

Furthermore, the administration’s announcement was more of a P.R. move than anything. It didn’t even fully commit to opening the patents, just beginning negotiations on doing so.

So what does speed up coronavirus vaccine production in other countries? Honestly, money. Spending money to create new bioreactor bag factories. Spending money to incentivize other drug companies to produce the vaccine. Spending money to make the excess doses that we know the U.S. won’t be able to use.

Now, I understand that spending money to help citizens in other countries is politically controversial, but this is perhaps the most obviously beneficial case in which to do so. Because of how globally connected we all are, a variant spreading in India is eventually going to find its way to the U.S. Our best hope, then, is to fight that battle as efficiently as possible in India, before it comes our way. This also has the great and important effect of potentially saving hundreds of thousands of Indian lives.

Moderna booster vaccine for variants proves effective, but will we need it?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A vial of vaccine as teachers and staff of the Canyons School District received their second shots of the Moderna vaccine at Mount Jordan Middle School in Sandy on Thursday, March 11, 2021.

Moderna also had big news, announcing study results on its vaccine specifically created to fight against the tricky coronavirus variants.

In particular, it tested a new version of the vaccine it created to fight two somewhat worrisome bits of alphabet soup: B.1.351 (the variant identified in South Africa) and P.1 (the variant identified in Brazil.) Researchers split study participants up into three groups: one that got a booster shot of the new variant vaccine, one that got a booster shot of the months-old vaccine, and one that got a 50-50 mix of the two.

What they found was that getting a booster shot of any type helped against the variants. But the one coded specifically to deal with the new variants helped most of all. There were more neutralization antibodies found against the variants than with the standard version of the vaccine. They also found that the side effect profile of the new vaccine didn’t change when compared to the old one. It was just as safe. It’s good news.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Am I actually going to need to take a third shot of the vaccine? Ugh.

I mostly don’t think so. We now have real-world data from Qatar about how Pfizer’s vaccine did against these variants. As you might remember, the Pfizer vaccine was 94% effective against the standard coronavirus. In Qatar, it was 90% effective against B.1.1.7 (the variant first identified in the United Kingdom) and 75% effective against B.1.351 (the South African variant). That’s still pretty good.

So it might make sense to give this new variant-adjusted vaccine to high-risk people if B.1.351 starts becoming the dominant strain in America. But there’s no real indication that B.1.351 has begun on that trajectory yet here. The B.1.1.7 variant has spread more effectively, but the vaccines work essentially just as well. We have only four confirmed cases of B.1.351 in Utah, and that number has not been growing.

What this variant-vaccine news does show, though, is that we can relatively quickly create safe vaccines against new variants that pop up, in case there ever were to be a coronavirus variant that our current vaccine was more ineffective against. The latest news was much more of a proof of concept than a call to action.

Andy Larsen is a data columnist. He is also one of The Salt Lake Tribune’s Utah Jazz beat writers. You can reach him at alarsen@sltrib.com.

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