The Viral Triple Threat and Why You Need a Booster: COVID, Quickly, Episode 41

The Viral Triple Threat and Why You Need a Booster: COVID, Quickly, Episode 41
Credit: Ryan Reid

COVID, flu and RSV are surging. Here are some things you should know to protect yourself.

Tanya Lewis: Hi, and welcome to Covid Quickly, a Scientific American podcast series! This is your quick update on the COVID pandemic. We will bring you up-to-date on the science behind the most pressing questions about the virus. We help you understand the science behind the disease and dispel myths about research.

I’m Tanya Lewis. I’m one of Scientific American’s senior editors on health. Josh is on vacation for the week. Today I will talk about the “triple demic” of RSV, flu, COVID. I’ll also discuss why you should get the COVID booster shot to ensure your complete protection.

Lewis: If it seems like everyone around you is getting sick lately, it’s because they are. This time it’s not COVID that’s making the rounds. It’s also flu and a virus called RSV.

COVID cases have been pretty flat lately at around 38,000 cases a day, although these are likely a vast undercount because many people are testing at home. But as we discussed last episode, the new Omicron subvariants could drive a winter surge.

All variants have mutations that make them more effective at getting around our immunity from prior infection or vaccination. Experts believe that vaccines should still offer protection against severe diseases and death. If you haven’t yet, now is a good time for you to get your booster. More information on that later.

Flu disappeared almost completely during the pandemic. People were staying at home, wearing masks, and social distancing. This is no longer true. The winter of the southern hemisphere was characterized by a severe flu season. This is a problem that usually affects the northern hemisphere.

Flu cases in the U.S. have already started spiking–especially in the South and New York City. Hospitals are reporting more positive results. This is earlier than a typical flu season, which usually peaks between December and February. If you haven’t had your flu shot yet, it is important to do so immediately. You can either get it simultaneously with your COVID booster or spread it out over a few days if your body reacts strongly to either.

Let’s talk about RSV or the respiratory syncytialvirus. You’re not the only one who hasn’t heard of it. You almost certainly have it. RSV was common in children before COVID. It can cause mild symptoms similar to the common flu.

But it can sometimes be deadly in infants younger than six months. It causes inflammation in the small airways, also known as bronchiolitis. This inflammation can make breathing difficult for very young children.

More recently, we’ve started to learn that adults over 65 are also at risk of severe RSV. Doctors don’t typically test for it, but about 14,000 adults die from RSV every year–not that many fewer than die from flu every year. People with compromised immune systems are particularly at risk.

Like many respiratory viruses, RSV basically disappeared during the pandemic’s first year, but it came roaring back in summer of 2021. It was because many children were suddenly getting sick from it, even though they had not been exposed as infants. This is what’s happening now. Hospitals are filling up on RSV.

There are no approved treatments for RSV. It is usually treated with supportive care. As far as vaccines, scientists have been working on those since the 1960s, but faced setbacks after a vaccine trial that resulted in the deaths of two children who got RSV after getting the vaccine. There are several promising vaccine candidates.

Pfizer just reported that its maternal RSV vaccine, which is given during pregnancy, was more than 80 percent effective at preventing severe RSV in infants under three months. And both Pfizer and GSK have both announced positive results for a vaccine for adults 60 and older. Barney Graham, a former scientist at NIH who spent his career working to develop an RSV vaccine, believes that at least one of these vaccines would be approved by the end next year.

The best way to protect yourself from RSV is to stay home if you are ill, wear a mask and stay in well-ventilated areas. RSV can also be contracted by touching surfaces.

Lewis: Circling back to COVID, let’s not forget that we’re still in a pandemic. And making sure you’re up to date with your COVID booster is the best thing you can do to protect yourself from getting severely ill. At this point in the pandemic, many of the people dying of COVID are actually older people who are vaccinated, but not up to date on their boosters. It doesn’t mean that vaccines don’t work. However, it does mean that many older Americans are vaccinated. )

I spoke to Hilary Marston (FDA’s chief medical officer) about why the bivalent booster shots are so crucial. The new boosters target both the original strain of virus and the Omicron BA.4/BA.5 subvariants. These are closely related to the ones currently in circulation. Marston said that booster shots are of vital importance at this time, because the weather is getting colder, and people are more indoors.

Everyone five and older is eligible for a booster shot. To get the best immune response, experts recommend waiting at least two to three months after your last booster and three months after a COVID infection.

But booster uptake has been extremely low. Fewer than 10 percent of eligible Americans have gotten the new shot. This is disappointing because we have the tools and the means to prevent serious illness.

Early data on the new booster shot’s efficacy is still coming out, but it looks promising–including against the new variants. Although it won’t stop you from getting COVID this shot could save your life.

Lewis: Now you’re up to speed. We appreciate you joining us. Jeff Delviscio & Tulika Bose produce our show. Check back in two weeks to see the next episode of COVID, quickly! For the latest COVID news, visit sciam.com.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

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    Tanya Lewis is a senior editor at Scientific American who covers health and medicine. Follow Tanya Lewis on Twitter Credit: Nick Higgins

      Jeffery DelViscio is chief multimedia editor in charge of video and podcasts at Scientific American. Follow Jeffery DelViscio on Twitter

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