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Moderna says its vaccine is safe for babies, and travelers won't need COVID tests

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We begin this hour with two big developments in the pandemic, and for a change, both will probably be a big relief for a lot of people. First, the Biden administration is dropping the requirement that airplane travelers test negative for COVID-19 before entering the country. And second, FDA scientists say Moderna's candidates for the first vaccine for babies, toddlers and other very young children appears to be safe and effective.

NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has been following all of this and joins us now. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right, so let's start with the news about travel. The administration is lifting the travel testing mandate. Why is that?

STEIN: Yeah, that's right. And as of 12:01 a.m. Sunday, travelers will no longer have to test negative to get into the country. The administration says the latest science and data indicates that a negative test just isn't necessary anymore. And we now have vaccines and treatments that can prevent serious illness and death. And we've seen that even though lots of people are still catching the virus, far fewer are ending up in the hospital or dying compared to earlier in the pandemic.

CHANG: Very good news. What do infectious disease experts think about this?

STEIN: Most are telling me the decision seems to make sense. The testing isn't really doing a whole lot, and getting rid of it should make travelers' lives easier. But the testing requirement has probably made travelers more cautious when they're, like, overseas, if for no other reason that they don't want to get stuck in some hotel room somewhere far from home.

CHANG: Right.

STEIN: You know, so this could lead to more travelers letting down their guard when they're out in, you know, crowded restaurants, bars, museums and catching the virus and spreading it on planes on their way home, especially now that most people aren't wearing masks anymore.

My colleague Pien Huang talked about this with Dr. Lin Chen, past president of the International Society of Travel Medicine, who happened to be traveling herself in Rotterdam.

LIN CHEN: Travelers who have increased risk for severe disease still want to be very careful and prepare for all kinds of potential exposure, potential infection.

STEIN: Because they might be more likely to end up sitting next to someone on that plane who's infected now.

CHANG: Right.

STEIN: For their part, the administration says it will monitor the situation and could reinstate the testing requirement if that becomes necessary.

CHANG: Well, let's turn now to the vaccine for very young children. Both Moderna and Pfizer and BioNTech have been saying their pediatric vaccines are safe and effective. So what's the new development here?

STEIN: Right. The FDA today released the first independent assessment of Moderna's claims. FDA scientists say that several formulations of Moderna's vaccine designed for kids between the ages of 6 months and 17 years do appear to generate sufficient immunity to protect them and don't appear to raise any new safety concerns. Now, kids between the ages of 5 and 17 have already been eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. So the big news here is that the FDA scientists say Moderna's vaccine for the littlest ones, you know, looks like it is good. Two shots containing one-quarter of the adult dose given one month apart appears to be safe and effective.

CHANG: OK. Let's go about how good.

STEIN: Yeah. So the FDA scientists say the Moderna shots stimulate the immune system just enough to protect kids as young as 6 months. And it looks like it's between, you know, 37- and maybe 50% effective at keeping them from getting sick. Now, that may not sound all that great, but that's just about as good as the vaccines have been at protecting against omicron.

I talked about this with Dr. Yvonne Maldonado. She's a Stanford University pediatrician who helps set policy for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

YVONNE MALDONADO: We need vaccines for children under 5. There's no question. And the bottom line is the Moderna vaccine is safe and effective in children.

STEIN: So she's hopeful the vaccine will get authorized next week.

CHANG: OK. So what is happening next week exactly?

STEIN: Yeah. That's going to be the culmination of what has been a long, stressful wait for many parents of very young children. On Monday, the FDA will release the agency's assessment of the Pfizer-BioNTech pediatric vaccine. On Tuesday, the FDA advisory committee will decide whether to recommend authorizing Moderna's vaccine for older kids ages 6 through 17.

On Wednesday, that's the big day. The advisers will evaluate both the Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines for the kids younger than 5. If the committee gives it the green light and the FDA agrees, the CDC will decide whether to recommend it the next weekend. And kids younger than 5 will finally be able to start getting vaccinated as soon as the following Tuesday.

CHANG: Ooh-wee (ph) - a lot happening in the next several days.

STEIN: Yeah. Tell me about it.

CHANG: That is...

STEIN: Busy week.

CHANG: ...NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: Any time, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.