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U.S. has been slow to roll out a campaign encouraging booster shots as omicron surges

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The omicron variant is spreading quickly. It has already become the dominant strain of coronavirus in London, according to British authorities, driving a record number of new daily infections across the United Kingdom. Here in the U.S., cases are also rising. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio says it's clear that omicron is a now, quote, "full in force" in the city. The question is, what can be done? Well, the U.K. is betting on an all-out campaign to get vaccine boosters to as many people as possible, but in the U.S., scientists are warning that the booster effort may already be too far behind. Joining us now is NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman. Nurith, let's start with the U.K. What's going on with their booster campaign?

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Yeah. So officials there are saying there's every indication that this omicron variant is very transmissible. They're talking a likely doubling in the number of new infections of every two days or less. But they seem to be wary of calling for shutdowns. Instead, on top of urging people to wear masks and to test, U.K. officials seem to be really pinning their hopes on this huge mobilization to get people vaccine booster shots. You know, at a press conference earlier this week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson effectively echoed Winston Churchill's "We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches" speech from World War II as he described the nationwide jab-a-thon (ph). Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: We're jabbing in hospitals. We're jabbing in surgeries. We're jabbing in pharmacies and in pop-up centers. We're jabbing in shopping centers and on high streets, in football stadiums with mass events planned. We are throwing everything at it, and wherever you are, we'll be there with a jab for you.

AIZENMAN: And, you know, it's yielded results. In England, about 90% of people over age 70 have now gotten a booster. And across the U.K., nearly half of all people older than 12 have boosters.

CORNISH: What's known so far about how well a booster shot actually protects against omicron compared to the first two doses?

AIZENMAN: So the evidence so far suggests that getting vaccinated with two doses doesn't cut down a person's risk of getting infected with omicron by quite as much as it did against the earlier variants. The good news is that if you do get sick, having those two vaccine doses will still strongly protect you against having severe disease. But even then, there's concern that this level of protection might vary a lot among older people. So health officials both in the U.K. and in the U.S. say they think boosting is a really good way to amp up that protection.

CORNISH: Should we expect to see a public health mobilization around boosters in the U.S. like the one you're describing in the U.K.?

AIZENMAN: It's unclear if that's going to happen. On the one hand, U.S. health officials are definitely encouraging people to get boosters, but we're not hearing the same tone of urgency that you hear from U.K. officials. And, you know, the reality is that at this point in time, it would be a heavy lift in the U.S. to get everyone boosted. I mean, right now, less than half of older U.S. adults have gotten boosters. And for eligible U.S. adults overall, the share who've gotten boosters is less than a fifth. NPR spoke with Bill Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and he said the U.S. has missed a window here.

BILL HANAGE: Let me be plain - omicron spreads so quickly that a significant fraction of people who received their booster now will have been infected before the booster takes full effect. It is a very rapidly moving virus, and we need to move at a similar pace.

AIZENMAN: And of course, in contrast to the U.K., in the U.S., there is still a sizable share of people who haven't even had two doses of the vaccine, and omicron could pose a particularly serious threat to them. So Hanage and other scientists I've heard from say in light of all this, they're disturbed that U.S. officials aren't sounding much more alarm about the threat from omicron.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Nurith Aizenman. Thank you so much for your reporting.

AIZENMAN: Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.