Pfizer and Moderna say they will soon be seeking clearance of their new bivalent Covid vaccine boosters for the young‘uns. But will Big Bird stay on message? 

The denizens of Sesame Street have been touting mRNA vaccines for quite a while. In a public-service ad launched last December, Big Bird told us, “It’ll help me keep playing with my Grammy Bird and all my friends at school.” Then in June came Louie, Elmo’s father: “The vaccine is the best way to keep him and everyone else healthy and enjoying the things they love.”

Today, that coaxing amounts to promotion of a bygone efficacy claim. The contention that Covid vaccines stop infection and transmission — essentially what Big Bird and Louie implied — has become risible. Joe Biden and Anthony Fauci both had been quadruply vaxxed before they came down with Covid, albeit with mild symptoms.

Even pre-Omicron, Big Bird would have been flustered had he consulted Deborah Birx, ex-tsarina of the Trump White House’s response to Covid. Has anyone heard what she told an interviewer some weeks ago? “I knew these vaccines were not going to protect against infection, and I think we overplayed the vaccines.”

READ MORE: Richard Koenig: Planning for the next pandemic — begone with Boomers?

The Sesame Street ads were orchestrated by the Ad Council, a nonprofit group based in New York, which worked with Sesame Workshop, “the leading minds in science and medicine,” and “the best talent in the private sector.” Certainly Big Bird had support in the highest places. Biden, pre-infection: “You’re not going to get Covid if you have these vaccinations.”

The bivalent boosters combine mRNA encoding spike proteins like those found in both an ancestral strain of the virus and the now prevalent Omicron BA.4/BA.5 variants. As of now, Pfizer’s bivalent has an Emergency Use Authorization for ages twelve and up; Moderna’s, for eighteen and up. Both companies will eventually be seeking EUAs for children as young as six months.

Big Bird should keep a close watch on those next applications. Even Paul Offit, a vaccinologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, wants better data than what has surfaced to date. “Otherwise,” he has remarked, “it’s just marketing, right?” And he was talking about the jabs recently cleared for adults

The proof of efficacy the Food and Drug Administration requires has been fast ebbing with each EUA it grants. The first big study to report out, Pfizer’s, centered on an actual clinical criterion: primarily, reduction in infection-related mild to moderate disease (fever, cough, etc). Since then, as Pfizer has sought EUAs for ever younger populations, studies have mostly relied on a bump-up in antibodies, notwithstanding that the FDA is on the record saying no antibody correlate of protection has been established. Now, in the instance of Pfizer’s bivalent vaccine, the current EUA rests on antibody levels measured not in humans but mice — essentially, eight mice jabbed with the bivalent against eight with the primary-series vaccine.

Data from Homo sapiens will follow. But why wait to go big? The Biden Administration has already bought 105 million doses of the bivalent from Pfizer, agreed to buy 66 million from Moderna, and signaled its desire to raise the total from both companies to 600 million.

The Sesame Street promos give this assurance: “It’s okay to have questions about Covid vaccines for your kids.” 

Really? That’s allowed? 

Well then, since the leading minds and best talent say it’s okay…

For most kids, what’s the emergency? Weighing the need for kids whose health is compromised is one thing, for healthy kids quite another. Consider a large study from Britain that excluded deaths involving co-morbidities as well as deaths merely coincidental to infection rather than due to it. The mortality risk for the under-eighteen population during the first year of the pandemic was found to be less than one in a million, the absolute number of deaths being nine. Across the same population, twelve million, and during the same period, deaths from suicide numbered 124.

Maybe the better way forward is to sharpen rather than dumb down controversy over whether to vax again and again almost anything on two legs, young or old, hearty or sickly, previously infected or not.

Are there any kids who don’t have some measure of natural immunity? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 75 percent of children and adolescents had been infected as of February 2022. The virus has hardly stopped finding new hosts since then.

Does anyone really think the issue of vaccine-related heart inflammation is settled? In a recent report from Thailand, 3.5 percent of healthy teenage boys (seven of 202) were found to have elevated biomarkers indicative of damaged heart cells. Four of those boys appeared well and were identified as possibly at future risk only because the researchers assayed biomarkers in addition to checking for overt symptoms. The study was small, boys who did have symptoms recovered, and differing cardiologists will make more or less of the biomarker findings. But do you think there might be resources in the US to do a big follow-up study, and with urgency? Last year, Pfizer’s revenue approximated one-sixth of Thailand’s GDP.  

Maybe the bright minds in the world of opinion-shaping will come to understand that what the “vaccine hesitant” are looking for may not be a patronizing nudge (or, as the Ad Council puts it, “empathy”).

Maybe the better way forward is to sharpen rather than dumb down controversy over whether to vax again and again almost anything on two legs, young or old, hearty or sickly, previously infected or not.

Maybe by now even the Bird is harboring some doubt.

Richard Koenig is the author of the Kindle Single No Place To Go, an account of efforts to provide toilets during a cholera epidemic in Ghana.

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