Dr. Elizabeth Clayborne, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Emergency Physician at UM Capital Region Medical Center, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss the latest in the coronavirus pandemic.
ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: The Biden administration's push to introduce widespread COVID-19 vaccine boosters faces a test today, as Food and Drug Administration advisory panel members meet to weigh evidence on the extra shots. It's a topic that has divided federal health officials. Joining us now is Dr. Elizabeth Clayborne, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Emergency Physician at UM Capital Region Medical Center.
We are also joined by our health reporter Anjalee Khemlani. And I want to welcome you both. And, Anjalee, I actually want to start with you, because I know earlier this week you spoke with Moderna CEO about the need for these booster shots. What did he have to say?
ANJALEE KHEMLANI: That's right, Alexis. Really, the idea focused on something that has been discussed regarding today's FDA panel hearing. And that is the idea that maybe boosters might be appropriate for certain segments of the population. Listen to what he had to say about that.
- This is the key scientific question we're all wrestling with right now, which isn't how the vaccines are doing today, it's how are they going to do this winter-- three months from now, when we would expect there to be an increase in cases as people go traveling for the holidays and come together.
It's important to note that there's a higher risk for those who are older and those who have comorbidities. And so while we do see breakthrough cases across the entire adult population, and we ultimately do think there's a benefit to boosters for the whole adult population, it's clear the need is most acute in those over the age of 65 or those who have diabetes, obesity, or chronic pulmonary diseases-- other things that put them at high risk of severe disease if they ever did get COVID-19.
ANJALEE KHEMLANI: So as you can hear, really putting that idea forward that maybe boosters aren't appropriate for everybody, even though there are some scientists who believe that the question facing the FDA panel today, whether or not to approve a booster for 16 years and older broadly speaking, should, in fact, be the question on the table. So a lot to discuss there.
ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: For sure. Let's do that right now with Dr. Elizabeth Clayborne. Doctor, you heard what the Moderna CEO just said. I'm curious if what you're hearing in your practice and among colleagues about the need for a booster, and who should be getting it, and when.
ELIZABETH CLAYBORNE: Yeah, this has definitely been widely debated among many of my colleagues and several of us who are serving on the front line in clinical positions where we're seeing exactly what happens to patients when they have breakthrough infections. And I think what's important to remember here is that, you know, the Moderna CEO is right-- that in general, these vaccines continue to hold up very well against severe disease and hospitalizations.
But there are some sub-segments of the population that seem to be at higher risk that may have some waning immunity. And when we look at the data, I want people to remember that waning antibody levels does not equate to waning immune protection. Antibodies circulating in your system does not mean absolutely, if they're high, that you're going to have waning-- if they're high, doesn't necessarily always equate to your protected, and if they're low, does not equate to you're not protected.
There's a lot of different parts of your immune system, specifically your B and T-cells, which are kind of the memory of your immune system that can still be very active in people who have waning antibody levels. And if you have a robust immune system when you're younger or may not have comorbidities, that reaction to having a stimulus like being infected with COVID-19 will actually bring back the antibodies really robustly, and you will be protected.
So I eagerly await what is going to be the result of the recommendations from the FDA panel today. But I anticipate that they're going to be approving it for just specific populations who do not have this robust immune response, like the majority of us do, who have been vaccinated and continue to be protected against severe disease and [INAUDIBLE]
ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Doctor, I'm so glad you brought up that difference between antibodies versus memory cells, because I know that that's part of it. The other part of it, too, as you heard from the Moderna president, is that they're also looking forward and what potentially waning protection could be. Right now, the data proves it against infection-- just infection waning versus severe illness. I wonder if you could wrap those in.
ELIZABETH CLAYBORNE: Absolutely. And people have to remember that right now, they're looking at a bunch of different factors and going into this decision. And some of them is, you know, will boosters decrease the ability for you to be infected or potentially transmit to others? And I think that's important for people across all ages.
Someone like myself, I'm not necessarily concerned, maybe, about getting a mild illness because I think that I would do well with that. But I might be concerned about having COVID-19 and potentially transmitting that to my two young children who live at home. And so if a booster could help me with that, I would be interested in that.
But I think that we have to weigh that benefit with whether or not we have the resources to boost everyone in this population while being mindful of what's happening globally. We do live in a global community, and this conversation about boosters does not take place just in the United States.
You have to remember that a lot of the variants and potential dangers for COVID-19 moving forward, especially in the winter months, may come from countries outside of the United States. And there needs to be an appropriate conversation about what we're doing to make sure that we're vaccinating the rest of the world, because that, indeed, protects us and protects other people.
So it's not just a question of ethics and equity, it's also a public health question. And I think that that needs to be in the conversation as well when making this decision about boosters.
ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: You know, you just echoed one of my biggest fears, doctor, is that I'm fully vaccinated, but I have someone in my household under 12 and I don't want to infect her. What can I do as someone who's fully vaccinated? Have I just already helped the situation by the fact that I'm vaccinated?
But if I were to somehow contract COVID, be one of those breakthrough cases, or have asymptomatic-- or it was an asymptomatic situation, you know, how can I still protect my daughter?
ELIZABETH CLAYBORNE: I think this brings up an important point is that while we're talking about these boosters, I think that a large part of the conversation when it comes to COVID-19 needs to be redirected, again, towards vaccinating our unvaccinated population and having kind of basic public health measures like masking in schools and social distancing that continues to protect us regardless of your vaccination status.
Again, if you're someone who is vaccinated, what you can do to protect yourself and your family is to encourage those people who you know who are not vaccinated in your communities, or your friend circles, and your family to get vaccinated. They are the ones who are the largest risk to you and your family.
And I think that a lot of this debate becoming political has really worked against us looking at each other as human beings and understanding we are all part of the same family. This virus does not care what your religious beliefs are, what your political affiliation is-- you will get sick if you are not vaccinated and probably severely ill. And that puts you at risk and your family members at risk. So I would encourage people to kind of redirect their efforts towards the basics-- social distancing, masking, and encouraging others to get vaccinated.
ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: It's not an easy conversation to have, especially with family and friends, but it's one that needs to be had. Dr. Elizabeth Clayborne and our own Anjalee Khemlani, thanks so much.