Tanya Lewis: Hi, and welcome to COVID, Quickly, a Scientific American podcast series.
Josh Fischman: This is your fast-track update on the COVID pandemic. We bring you up to speed on the science behind the most urgent questions about the virus and the disease. We demystify the research and help you understand what it really means.
Lewis: I’m Tanya Lewis.
Fischman: I’m Josh Fischman.
Lewis: And we’re Scientific American’s senior health editors.
Lewis: And we’re Scientific American’s senior health editors. On the docket today, a court imperils Biden’s big workplace vaccination mandate…
Fischman: …booster shot eligibility expands, as does evidence the shots help…
Lewis: …and zoo tigers and leopards get COVID and their own vaccine.
Lewis: In early November, the Biden administration laid out a rule to get most American workers vaccinated, because unvaccinated people were filling up hospitals. You’ve been tracking the backlash, so what’s the latest?
Fischman: This hasn’t been a good seven days for the White House plan to get millions more Americans vaccinated by January. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, at President Biden’s direction, had announced an emergency rule: companies with more than 100 employees need those workers either to be vaccinated by January 4th or get weekly COVID tests.
That prompted a number of states and companies to sue the administration in the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative courts in the country. Conservative courts generally do not favor government interventions. And the 5th Circuit held true to that philosophy last Friday, ordering OSHA to stop the rule pending resolution of these cases in a full court hearing.
The court gave a lot of weight to economic issues, noting mandates could cause disruptions if workers quit instead of getting vaccinated. And it scolded the administration for infringing on the rights of individuals to make personal medical decisions.
It also noted that while OSHA has authority to issue emergency rules based on the physical safety of the workplace, such as demanding the removal of asbestos, an airborne virus is not confined to the workplace and therefore may not fall under OSHA authority.
Mostly absent from the court decision was a consideration of health concerns, which is what prompted the emergency rule in the first place. The administration had argued the virus is spread in group settings such as workplaces. Data show the spreaders have almost all been unvaccinated people. And vaccinations in the workforce would save thousands of lives.
This is not an idle notion. Remember the COVID outbreaks at meat processing plants? An analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences at the end of 2020 found that, in the first six months of that year, meat plant outbreaks caused between 4300 and 5200 deaths, and the fatalities started in the plants and spread thru surrounding communities.
As for economic consequences and quitting workers, United Airlines and Tyson Foods, which started vaccine mandates for employees months ago, report that fewer than five percent have quit. Major business groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce endorsed mandates, because they keep businesses open. Three big labor unions brought suits against the administration asking for stronger mandates. And Gartner, a business consulting firm, did a survey of 300 companies this week and reported that 60 percent plan to keep moving forward with vaccine mandates.
That’s because the 5th Circuit decision was just a temporary stay. The federal courts have consolidated all the lawsuits and, after a random lottery, sent the whole bunch to the 6th appellate circuit, another court that has a lot of conservative judges. That ideology could spell trouble for the OSHA rule again. The 6th circuit will hear a full case and issue a ruling.
But that won’t be the end of things, either. Whichever side loses will appeal. And the case will end up in the Supreme Court, perhaps in three or four months. The high court has supported several vaccine mandates recently. Several legal scholars have argued that a vaccine mandate in the workplace is within OSHA’s statutory authority. But the court does have a conservative majority, so we really won’t know what happens until they actually get a case and make a decision.
Fischman: We talk a lot about boosters on this podcast, but it seems there’s always more to say. What’s the latest on who’s 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 for all Americans to 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 getting severe COVID. And now, the FDA just authorized Pfizer and Moderna boosters for anyone 18 and over who is at least six months out from their second shot. Anyone who had the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is already eligible for a booster at least two months after their shot. The CDC’s advisory panel is set to meet Friday to discuss whether to recommend boosters for all adults.
But some states and cities have not waited. California, Colorado, New Mexico, and New York City have already opened up boosters to any adult who wants one.
Evidence has been building that the vaccines’ effectiveness wanes over time, and not just in older people. Data from Israel showed the Pfizer vaccine was just 41% effective at preventing symptomatic disease as of July. A study in England found the Pfizer vaccine was 70% effective after five months. And a study of veterans in the U.S. found that from February to October, vaccine effectiveness declined to 58% for Moderna, 43% for Pfizer, and Johnson and Johnson was the lowest, at just 13%. The vaccines still protect well against hospitalization and death, but that protection is starting to decline among the elderly.
The good news is, boosters appear to be very effective at increasing immunity: a study in the U.K. of people over 50 and those with underlying health conditions found that those who got the Pfizer vaccine saw their protection increase from about 63% to 94%, and people who got the AstraZeneca vaccine saw theirs increase from 44% to 93%.
Even though the original vaccine series provides good protection against disease, boosters can extend that—and keep you from getting long COVID. So, even if you’re not older or high risk, getting a booster is probably a good idea, especially ahead of the winter holidays as more people gather indoors.
Fischman: Does it matter which booster you get?
Lewis: That’s a good question. The FDA has said you can get a booster of any vaccine, regardless of what you originally got. While all of the vaccines have been shown to boost antibody levels after vaccination, there are some differences.
The NIH did a study in which they mixed and matched different vaccines and boosters, and found that people who got the Moderna vaccine and Moderna booster had the highest levels of antibodies, followed by people who had Pfizer and a Moderna booster or Moderna and a Pfizer booster. In all cases, having an mRNA booster was better than a Johnson & Johnson one. Other studies have also shown a slight edge 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, whereas the currently approved Moderna booster is a half dose. So, while it’s possible a Moderna booster may be slightly better than a Pfizer one, either vaccine will likely give you strong protection against COVID. The best booster may simply be whichever one you can get.
Lewis: Finally, the pandemic isn’t limited to human beings. It’s impacted a few animals in zoos as well.
Fischman: Cats–the big ones at zoos–aren’t immune from COVID. Sadly 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 that also got infected are recovering.
There have been outbreaks at other zoos, too. Two lions and other big cats at the St. Louis Zoo tested positive early this month. All are getting better.
It’s a puzzle how the cats got sick, since the Lincoln zoo says keepers were masked. People can pass the virus to animals, the CDC says.
But if you have pets, relax. Pets don’t give the virus back to people, two veterinary studies done this summer showed. And pets themselves usually have very mild symptoms.
At zoos, animals may get their own vaccine. Zoetis, a veterinary healthcare company, has developed a shot using a modified coronavirus spike protein. Company data show it stimulates a good antibody response. So Zoetis has donated 11,000 doses to zoos all across the U.S.
Lewis: Now you’re up to speed. Thanks for joining us.
Fischman: Come back in two weeks for the next episode of COVID, Quickly! And check out SciAm.com for updated and in-depth COVID news.
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]