The Atlantic Daily: How Many COVID Shots Will be ‘Enough’?

Boosters are officially back, and kids under 5 may soon get their first vaccinations. We do the math on the “magic number.” Plus: Maybe don’t make happiness your main goal.

America is yet again locking and loading its syringes. This week, the FDA and CDC green-lit another round of COVID-19 boosters for everyone over 50, and certain immunocompromised people of any age. Pfizer and Moderna’s miniaturized shots for infants and toddlers are also hopefully coming soon. That’s potentially millions of new doses to give in the next few months. Some will be first shots. Some will be fifths. Perhaps the rest of the population will be due for another round soon too (though the jury’s still out on whether we can afford such a big distribution effort, with federal funds all dried up). Because no one seems to know for sure yet how many COVID-19 doses will finally, finally be enough.

The magic number almost certainly won’t be the same for everyone—and the coronavirus might be such a moving target that we’ll all end up needing annual-ish shots, as we do with flu. People at higher risk of getting seriously sick, whether because of age, health conditions, or occupation, may need to zhuzh their immunity more often than others. The ultimate answer will also depend on what we want our vaccines to accomplish. If it’s a shield against severe disease, hospitalization, and death, we might not need to juice up that often. But if we’re after a total blockade against all infections, boosters may need to continue at a very rapid clip. The trick will be getting people to come back for their shots, again and again.

Maybe someday researchers will concoct a shot that provides more lasting protection, perhaps with a recipe that sustainably tickles our immunity, or is variant-proof. We’ll also need fewer shots if transmission goes down and stays down—which will slash the likelihood that more nasty variants sprout as well.

For now, though, we’re working with the shots we have. When it comes to mRNA shots, at least, having a trio of doses under your belt seems like a solid number for most people, especially now that we’re living in the era of Omicron, which slips past many of the defenses raised by two injections alone. The rule of three will probably end up holding true for kids too, even though no one under 12 has yet been okayed for a booster, and Moderna is planning to ask the FDA to authorize a two-dose series of its under-6 shot.

And for those at “higher risk,” as designated by the CDC? As my colleague Rachel Gutman reported today, getting a second booster now probably won’t hurt (though she points out that the benefits might be a little murky too). It might not be a bad idea for vulnerable people to do so, as the Omicron subvariant known as BA.2 continues to hopscotch across the country. Some experts have warned that we may soon see another rise in cases, though no one’s yet sure when that bump might arrive, or how big it might be. To really weather a springtime surge, though, we’ll need more than boosters. First vaccines for the unvaccinated remain a priority—and we’ll have to shore up our defenses with the same tools we know work against the virus, every single time.

Pink light from the sunrise shines on cherry blossom branches near the Potomac River. The Jefferson Memorial is visible in the background.
Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty

The rest of the news in three sentences:

(1) As energy prices continue to rise, President Joe Biden has ordered the release of millions of barrels of oil from U.S. reserves.

(2) NATO has found evidence that Russia is repositioning but not reducing its military presence around Kyiv, contrary to claims the country made during peace talks this week.

(3) Israel has experienced three terrorist attacks this week. Our writer Yair Rosenberg asks if there might be a new ending to the script that typically follows such violence.

Latest dispatches: In I Have Notes, Nicole Chung recalls having her life changed as a child when a writer visited her school—and having a visit of hers abruptly canceled as an adult. Conor Friedersdorf focuses the new edition of Up for Debate on Biden’s recent unscripted remark about Vladimir Putin.

Tonight’s Atlantic-approved activity: Stroll among the cherry blossoms from the comfort of your couch.

A break from the news: The second-happiest people get something really important right.

Thanks for reading. This email was written by Katherine J. Wu, with help from Isabel Fattal.