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How Novavax Compares To Other COVID-19 Vaccines

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The latest COVID vaccine set to hit the market - Novavax. The Maryland-based biotech company behind it says it's 100% effective against the original coronavirus and 93% effective against COVID variants. And even though just about every public health official out there says we shouldn't be vaccine shopping, I couldn't help but think of how those numbers stacked up against the vaccine I received - Johnson & Johnson - and some of the questions I've heard from all of you in the course of our reporting, like what it means when it comes time to vaccinate your kids, later on what it might mean for boosters, can you mix and match? Well, we've brought back Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health and an expert in global health policy.

Welcome back to the program.

ASHISH JHA: Thank you for having me back.

CORNISH: I know I'm not supposed to ask this, but I'm going to. Is one vaccine better than the other?

JHA: Well, I think the Novavax news today gives us a fourth really terrific vaccine. And I have to say that there are advantages and disadvantages of some vaccines over others. But I remain of the opinion that there are a lot of really terrific vaccines and none that I feel are clearly superior all around compared to others.

CORNISH: So the better question, I guess, is what I mean by better, right? Like, what's the benchmark? How do we, when we're making this decision - why are some people getting more excited about this particular vaccine, for instance?

JHA: Yeah. And the reason it's hard to answer is because you can be simplistic and just look at the headline efficacy number - 90% for this vaccine, 95% for mRNA vaccines like Moderna and Pfizer or lower, kind of in the 70s, 80s for Johnson & Johnson - and then you can create your ranking based on that. But all these vaccines were tested at different times against different variants with different outbreaks and different contacts with different populations. So it really does start getting difficult. And the fundamental question I ask when I look at all these vaccines is, are they going to prevent people from getting really sick and dying? And all of these vaccines do that beautifully. And at the end of the day, that's why I think of them all as terrific vaccines.

CORNISH: Sometime late summer, possibly early fall, we could be hearing something about a Pfizer vaccine for kids, right? There's studies in kids 11 years old to 6 months that are ongoing. Again, is this a case of taking a vaccine as soon as it's available? Are there other studies going on with these other vaccines for young children?

JHA: Yeah, there are. Moderna is also doing studies for younger children. I know that AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are. We will want to eventually vaccinate all kids. Obviously, in the United States, we can vaccinate everybody over the age of 12. And we just need to look at the data and make sure that we have good data on safety - that's going to be obviously critical in getting the doses right in young kids - and then making sure that it works.

CORNISH: But you can see why I'm asking, right? Like, people - there are already people who were reluctant...

JHA: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...And may even look at something like the J&J sort of issue with some of their early manufacturing and say, see, there's benefit to waiting. What do you say to them as they look now - right? - and maybe thinking about their kids?

JHA: Yeah. And what I say is that, you know, the FDA has a pretty high bar. They don't tend to authorize things unless we have a good amount of data. And you also have to think about it compared to the alternative. And if the alternative is people getting COVID, there have been no side effects from any of these vaccines that match the downsides of getting COVID itself. And that's why I've been encouraging people to get vaccinated as quickly as possible - because the benefits way outweigh the risks.

CORNISH: Very short amount of time left - boosters. Is Novavax a good candidate for a booster shot? Is there any other thing we should be thinking about in that context?

JHA: Yeah, I think we're probably going to need boosters at some point in 2022. Novavax may end up being very good for that. They're actually testing that out as a possibility. We're going to have to learn a lot more about if we need boosters, when we need them. I don't think they're coming anytime soon. The vaccines we have right now really do seem to be working very well for the next, you know, at least six months to a year.

CORNISH: Dr. Ashish Jha, thank you so much for entertaining my questions (laughter).

JHA: (Laughter) It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me back.

CORNISH: Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.