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Pfizer CEO on COVID booster uptake: ‘Complacency will get in the way’

COVID vaccine uptake has plateaued in many parts of the world, including in the U.S., where 68.1% of the population is fully vaccinated.

Among the fully vaccinated, just 49% have gotten their first booster and 39% of those individuals have received their second booster dose.

Improving those booster numbers won’t be easy, according to Pfizer (PFE) CEO Albert Bourla. In fact, Bourla is anticipating resistance to public health recommendations because of the constantly-evolving virus.

“The health authorities will make those recommendations while they see what is the severity of the strains that are available,” Bourla said at Yahoo Finance’s 2022 All Markets Summit (video above). “But in many cases, I do not expect that people will comply with these recommendations as they did in maybe the first months of the pandemic when people were really scared. Complacency will get in the way, so I see that the volumes of people that will be getting the vaccine will be less.”

Most health experts have agreed that a yearly COVID booster will be necessary to keep case counts low and minimize the severity of symptoms, much like the flu shot.

“I think with the right vaccines, we can prevent infections to hospitalizations to deaths and severe diseases,” Bourla said. “The vaccine has shown that death and hospitalization, the prevention is very high. When it comes to infections, the bar is a little lower.”

The uptake for flu shots isn’t very high either. According to the CDC, just 51.4% of U.S. adults received their flu shot during the 2021-22 flu season, a 0.7% decrease from the prior year.

“I think that the goal is to bring vaccines so that they can last a year,” Bourla said. “I think that will simplify things because I believe that people will not be that diligent to do the vaccinations as they are tired of making too many vaccines and they want stability. But if we have a yearly vaccine, which is something that people are used to like the flu, for example, this is something that will take a significant amount of people to be able to get it.”

The most recent COVID booster became available in September 2022 and specifically targets the Omicron variant, which has proven to be much more evasive of vaccines than previous variants, albeit with milder symptoms.

Dr. Mayank Amin draws a COVID booster vaccine targeting Omicron subvariants at Skippack Pharmacy in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, September 8, 2022. REUTERS/Hannah Beier
Dr. Mayank Amin draws a COVID booster vaccine targeting Omicron subvariants at Skippack Pharmacy in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, September 8, 2022. REUTERS/Hannah Beier

But new subvariants continue to emerge, and some health officials are bracing for another surge in cases this winter. Two new strains so far account for more than 10% of new infections throughout the U.S., which could mean that the newest booster may potentially become less effective over time and force vaccine manufacturers to develop another updated booster, adding to existing COVID vaccine fatigue.

"That's the thing that's so frustrating for me and for my colleagues who are involved in this is that we have the capability of mitigating against this," White House Chief Medical Adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci told CBS News. "And the uptake of the new bivalent vaccine is not nearly as high as we would like it to be."

All that said, Bourla is optimistic that Pfizer (and perhaps other vaccine manufacturers) will be able to tackle any changes in the virus — though he admitted that COVID-19 will likely be around for a long time.

“Unfortunately, this virus is very nasty and makes a lot of variations, so I think although nobody knows, most scientists are in agreement that for the years to come, the virus will be around us,” Bourla said. “But we are lucky because we have a vaccine that can adapt.”

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at adriana@yahoofinance.com.

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