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Virologist: Despite booster suggestion, COVID vaccines are ‘still working’

(File photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Dr. Angela Rasmussen has been talking with KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show almost weekly for months, since pretty much the beginning of the COVID pandemic.

For those who don’t know, Dr. Rasmussen is a virologist and has a PhD in microbiology and immunology from Columbia University that she got in 2009. She did her postdoc at the University of Washington. Now, Rasmussen studies emerging viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, and is an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan, working at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, which is a research institute that focuses on developing vaccines for pandemic viruses.

Ursula asked her to provide that information as there has been a general (and growing) distrust in people who are brought in as experts.

“This is a show where we don’t have all the answers, and so we go to people like you, Dr. Rasmussen, for these answers,” she said.

Booster shots

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House now recommend people get a COVID booster shot eight months after their second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, starting this fall.

“I have to say I don’t completely agree with this recommendation,” Rasmussen said. “This was based on several papers that have come out that have shown a decrease in vaccine effectiveness against breakthrough infections caused by delta.”

The delta variant, she points out, sounds scary to a lot of people as we hear about how it’s more contagious and more people are in the hospital.

“And without question, delta is really bad,” Rasmussen clarified. “But I want to say — and I want to make this very clear — that the breakthrough infections you are hearing about are largely not associated with cases of severe COVID.”

“When you look at vaccine effectiveness for hospitalization and death, the vaccines are actually pretty much holding up,” she added. “They’re really not decreased that much in terms of their effectiveness protecting people who are vaccinated against severe disease.”

There are a couple exceptions to this, however, she noted, including older people who are high-risk who may indeed need a booster shot in the near future.

“This is not just older people, it’s older people plus people who have comorbidities that put them at higher risk of COVID anyways, or severe COVID,” she explained. “So those people as well as people who are immunocompromised — people who have had an organ transplant, who are taking steroids for chronic inflammatory conditions, people who potentially have advanced HIV — those people do need a third shot. And there’s a lot of data really supporting that.”

“But for most people, if you’re already at lower risk of developing severe COVID, I don’t actually think that the data does suggest that you need an actual booster shot,” she added. “I’m glad that they’re going to be available because I know a lot of people have been contacting me asking me if they can get one. They’re certainly not going to hurt. But people should know that the vaccines are still working against delta for what they’re really supposed to work against. And that is protecting people from ending up in the hospital. Or even worse, ending up in the morgue.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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