Tanja Lewis: Hello and welcome to COVID, Quickly, a Scientific American Podcast series.
Josh Fischmann: This is your fast track update on the COVID pandemic. We bring you up to date with the latest science behind the most pressing questions about the virus and disease. We demystify the research and help you understand what it really means.
Lewis: I’m Tanya Lewis.
Fish man: I’m Josh Fischman.
Lewis: And were Scientific American‘s senior health editor.
Lewis: And we’re the senior health editors for Scientific American. On the agenda today is a court that will jeopardize Biden’s huge vaccination mandate in the workplace …
Fish man: … the authorization for booster shots is extended, as is the proof that the shots help …
Lewis: … and zoo tigers and leopards get COVID and their own vaccine.
Lewis: In early November, the Biden administration put a rule to vaccinate most American workers because unvaccinated people were filling up hospitals. You’ve been following the backlash, so what’s the latest?
Fish man: It hasn’t been a good seven days for the White House’s plan to vaccinate millions more Americans by January. The occupational health and safety authorities had announced an emergency rule on instructions from President Biden: Companies with more than 100 employees must either have these workers vaccinated by January 4 or receive weekly COVID tests.
This prompted a number of states and corporations to sue the administration in the US 5th Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative courts in the country. Conservative courts generally do not advocate government interference. And the 5th District adhered to that philosophy last Friday, ordering OSHA to lift the rule pending settlement of these cases in a full court hearing.
The court placed great emphasis on economic issues and found that mandates could lead to disruption if workers quit rather than get vaccinated. And it blamed the government for violating individuals’ right to make personal medical decisions.
It also noted that while OSHA has the power to issue emergency rules based on the physical safety of the workplace, such as:
Most of the time, health concerns were not taken into account in the court decision, which led to the emergency regulation in the first place. The administration had argued that the virus was spread in group settings such as workplaces. Data shows that almost all of the shakers were unvaccinated people. And vaccinations on the workforce would save thousands of lives.
This is not an empty idea. Do you remember the COVID outbreaks in meat processing plants? An analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in late 2020 found that meat plant outbreaks caused between 4,300 and 5,200 deaths in the first six months of this year, and deaths began in the plants and spread to surrounding communities.
As for the economic impact and layoffs, United Airlines and Tyson Foods, which began vaccination mandates for employees months ago, report that fewer than five percent have quit. Large corporate groups like the US Chamber of Commerce advocated mandates because they keep business open. Three major unions filed lawsuits against the government demanding stronger mandates. And Gartner, a management consultancy, conducted a survey of 300 companies this week and reported that 60 percent plan to continue moving vaccine mandates.
That’s because the 5th District decision was only a temporary stay. The federal courts consolidated all of the lawsuits and, after a random lottery, sent the whole bunch to the 6th Court of Appeal, another court with many Conservative judges. That ideology could get OSHA rule back in trouble. The 6th circle will hear a full case and make a decision.
But that won’t be the end of things either. The side that loses will appeal. And the case may go to the Supreme Court in three or four months. The Supreme Court has recently endorsed several vaccination mandates. Several legal scholars have argued that a job vaccination order is a legal responsibility of OSHA. But the court has a Conservative majority so we really won’t know what happens until they actually get a case and make a decision.
Fish man: We talk a lot about boosters on this podcast, but it seems like there is still more to say. What’s the latest on who is eligible for a booster and should you get one?
Lewis: The science of booster shots is a moving target. President Biden announced plans in August that all Americans would be eligible for boosters. But at first, many experts pushed back and said they weren’t needed for most people. Then they said they were needed for older adults and people with underlying health conditions or work exposures that could put them at greater risk of developing severe COVID. And now the FDA has just approved Pfizer and Moderna boosters for anyone 18 and over who stays for at least six months after their second injection. Anyone who has had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is entitled to a booster vaccination at least two months after being vaccinated. The CDC advisory panel will meet on Friday to discuss whether boosters should be recommended for all adults.
But some states and cities haven’t waited. California, Colorado, New Mexico, and New York City already have boosters open to any adult who wants one.
There is some evidence that vaccines may become less effective over time, and not just in the elderly. Data from Israel showed that the Pfizer vaccine was only 41% effective in preventing symptomatic diseases in July. A study in England found that the Pfizer vaccine was 70% effective after five months. And a study of veterans in the US found that from February to October, the vaccine’s effectiveness dropped to 58% for Moderna, 43% for Pfizer, and Johnson and Johnson were the lowest at just 13%. The vaccines still protect well against hospitalization and death, but that protection is beginning to decline in the elderly.
The good news is that boosters appear to be very effective at increasing immunity: a study in the UK of people over 50 and those with underlying illnesses found that the protection of those who received the Pfizer vaccine increased by about 63% 94% increase. and people who received the AstraZeneca vaccine saw an increase from 44% to 93%.
Although the original series of vaccines offered good protection against disease, boosters can extend it – and save you from long-term COVID. Even if you’re not older or at high risk, it’s probably a good idea to get a refresher, especially before the winter holidays, as more people congregate indoors.
Fish man: Does it matter which booster you get?
Lewis: That’s a good question. The FDA has said you can get a booster shot for any vaccine, regardless of what you originally received. Although all vaccines have been shown to increase antibody levels after vaccination, there are some differences.
The NIH conducted a study mixing different vaccines and booster vaccines and found that people who received the Moderna vaccine and Moderna booster had the highest levels of antibodies, followed by people who received Pfizer and a Moderna booster or Moderna and a Pfizer had boosters. In all cases, an mRNA booster was better than a Johnson & Johnson booster. Other studies have also shown a slight advantage for the Moderna shot over Pfizer. One possible explanation is that Moderna contains more than twice the amount of mRNA as the Pfizer vaccine.
But there’s a catch: the NIH study looked at a full-dose Moderna booster, while the currently approved Moderna booster is half a dose. So it’s possible that a Moderna booster is slightly better than a Pfizer vaccine, but any vaccine will likely give you strong protection against COVID. The best booster can just be what you can get.
Lewis: After all, the pandemic is not limited to humans. It has also affected some animals in zoos.
Fish man: Cats – the big ones in zoos – are not immune to COVID. Unfortunately, last week a children’s zoo in Lincoln, Nebraska reported that three snow leopards died from the disease about a month after they showed symptoms. Their names were Ranney, Everest, and Makalu. Two tigers who are also infected recover.
Outbreaks have also occurred in other zoos. Two lions and other big cats at the St. Louis Zoo tested positive earlier this month. Everyone is getting better.
How the cats got sick is a mystery, as Lincoln Zoo says the zookeepers were masked. Humans can transmit the virus to animals, says the CDC.
But if you have pets, relax. Pets don’t give the virus back to humans, two veterinary studies from this summer showed. And pets themselves usually have very mild symptoms.
In zoos, animals can get their own vaccine. Zoetis, a veterinary medicine company, has developed a shot with a modified coronavirus spike protein. Company data shows that it stimulates a good antibody response. So Zoetis has donated 11,000 cans to zoos across the United States
Lewis: Now you are up to date. Thanks for joining us.
Fish man: Come in two weeks for the next episode of COVID, Quickly! And on SciAm.com you will find current and detailed COVID news.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]