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Head of CDC gets COVID after getting new bivalent booster, leading to 'push back and mocking'

National Post logo National Post 2022-10-25 Sharon Kirkey
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. © Provided by National Post Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A month after receiving one of the revamped COVID vaccines, the head of the agency in charge of disease control for the United States has tested positive for COVID-19.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky’s infection could add another “why bother,” some immunologists and observers worry, for people sitting on the fence over the new bivalent vaccines, which target both the Omicron and original strains of SARS-CoV-2.

Others say the important point is that Walensky’s symptoms are mild. “That is what the vaccine is supposed to do in 2022,” Al Tompkins, of the Poynter Institute, wrote in his daily morning briefing Monday.

Walensky, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tested positive for COVID-19 Friday night. She’s isolating at home, as per CDC guidelines, and participating in planned meetings virtually, the agency said in a statement.

Walensky received a bivalent COVID booster on Sept. 22. “Laboratory data suggest these updated vaccines provide increased protection against currently circulating variants,” she tweeted at the time. “If you received your last COVID-19 vaccine (more than two months) ago, I encourage you to join me & get your updated vaccine now.”

Public health agencies in the U.S. and Canada are pushing the new reworked boosters ahead of an anticipated winter surge and amid a flurry of new variants ever more efficient at ducking immunity from previous vaccines or old infections.

According to Health Canada, the modified boosters, by containing a broader strain of the virus, may broaden immune protection against circulating and future variants of concern, “although given the unpredictable nature of the ongoing evolution of SARS-CoV-2, this is uncertain at this time,” the agency said.

The head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine operations told STAT’s Helen Branswell that, given the pace at which SARS-CoV-2 is mutating, more boosters are entirely possible.

“I would be lying to you if (I said) it doesn’t keep me up at night worrying that there is a certain chance that we may have to deploy another booster — at least for a portion of the population, perhaps older individuals — before next September, October,” Peter Marks told STAT.

“I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen, but it’s what keeps me up at night, because we see how fast this virus is evolving.”

Walensky contracted COVID despite being up to date on COVID shots and masking during a World Health Summit last week in Berlin. She masked at all times during the two-day meeting, except for eating or publicly speaking, a spokesperson for Walensky told Reuters.

“I’m seeing the push back and mocking everywhere,” University of Alberta law professor Timothy Caulfield said of the response on social media to Walensky’s COVID diagnosis.

Public health officials have been criticized for overstating the extent of the ability of COVID vaccines to prevent infection, protection that wanes over time.

“The anti-vax community has effectively weaponized early statements from public health officials about transmission, which could have been better,” Caulfield said.

“And, yes, Omicron changed the picture. But the data are clear: Unvaccinated die more, and are hospitalized more, and have worse outcomes.”

A new study from the Washington State Department of Health found that unvaccinated 12- to 64-year-olds were almost twice as likely to get COVID and three times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID than people with at least two doses of vaccine. In the 65-plus age group, the unvaccinated were 4.5 times more likely than the immunized to die.

The sluggish uptake of boosters comes down to deep COVID fatigue, Caulfield said. “I think this has made misinformation and ideological spin more persuasive. The personal risk/benefit analysis has shifted.”

There was more urgency during the worst waves of the pandemic, he said. “With the rise in complacency and the belief that the ‘boosters’ are just ‘extra,’ which is the wrong framing, even slight hesitancy seems more likely to translate into inaction.”

But questions linger about who needs one of the updated boosters. Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious diseases specialist at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a vaccine adviser to the FDA, has argued that bivalent boosters make sense for those most likely to get hospitalized: the elderly (people over 65), people with serious medical conditions like chronic lung disease “where even a mild infection could land them in the hospital,” and the immunocompromised.

“Otherwise, I think a healthy young person doesn’t necessarily need this (bivalent) vaccine,” Offit said in a short video posted last month.

There’s still debate about how well the new boosters protect against severe illness. Last week, Pfizer issued a press release saying that its reworked booster generated a “substantial increase” in neutralizing antibodies against Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, the dominant circulating strains, above pre-booster levels.

The findings were based on blood samples drawn from people seven days after getting the shots. But there’s no data yet as to whether the booster provides better protection against severe outcomes, said McMaster University immunologist Dawn Bowdish.

“I think people are already dismayed by the fact you can get a vaccine and still get this infection,” she said.

Millions of infections and new mutations into the pandemic, “and we’re sort of playing catch up,” Bowdish said “We’re trying to provide the best protection we possibly can with vaccines that these viruses have evolved to evade.”

Bowdish plans to get her bivalent shot as soon as the 84 days from her last dose is up. Even if people do get infected, the amount of virus is lower the more proximate to vaccination, she said. “So, you have less virus in you if you were vaccinated 60 day ago than if it was 120 days ago.”

More virus means more opportunities to possibly damage the heart, lung or other organs, or lead to long COVID.

“If you’re going to get infected, you want that infection to be as close to your last vaccine as possible, which means we should all be getting vaccinated now, because we’re entering into a pretty severe wave,” Bowdish said.

“It’s not perfect. It won’t stop you from getting sick necessarily, but if it stops you from getting permanent health damage, I think it’s still worth it.”


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