A growing number of 'multi-vaxxers' are getting unauthorized booster shots. Most are mixing and matching.

covid vaccine cards
COVID-19 vaccines cards at the Berks Heim Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Bern Township, Pennsylvania on January 29, 2021. Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle/Getty Images
  • The FDA hasn't yet authorized booster shots, but a growing number of people are getting them anyway.

  • Insider spoke with three people who received booster shots in the US, and one in Israel.

  • All four "multi-vaxxers" said they wanted more protection against the Delta variant.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Katie Bent and her three roommates all got Johnson & Johnson's vaccine in April at the Oakland Coliseum in California - the first shot offered to them after a year of relative isolation.

"If the Pfizer had been the first option available to me, I would have gone with that over J&J," Bent, a 30-year-old tech worker, told Insider. "My priority was getting it sooner rather than getting the preferred option."

Pfizer's and Moderna's clinical trials found that those vaccines reduced the risk of getting COVID-19 by roughly 95%, while J&J's single-dose shot was found to cut the risk of moderate and severe COVID-19 by 66%. Bent was comfortable with that. Any vaccine, she figured, would eliminate the feeling of panic when someone came too close at the grocery store.

katie and charlie
Katie Bent with her dog, Charlie. Katie Bent

But earlier this summer, Bent saw some research suggesting that the Delta variant rendered vaccines slightly less effective. A recent, non-peer-reviewed study found that antibodies produced in response to J&J's shot were less effective at neutralizing Delta roughly 80 days later, though a preprint on Friday indicated that J&J's vaccine reduces the risk of hospitalization from Delta by up to 71%, and of death by up to 95%.

Still, Bent began to doubt the protection she had. So last month, she got a Pfizer shot at her local pharmacy. Booster shots haven't been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration and are still being studied in clinical trials, so Bent didn't mention that she'd already gotten J&J.

"They never asked, so I never told," she said.

A growing number of US residents are doing the same thing: getting under-the-table booster shots to decrease their odds of getting sick or infecting others. Two other "multi-vaxxers" told Insider they, too, recently got an extra dose to protect against the Delta variant.

Andy Sparks, a 32-year old executive coach, got a Moderna shot two weeks ago at Walmart. He initially opted for J&J's because he was moving from San Francisco to Denver and didn't want to coordinate doses across two states.

But Delta was "an extra kick in the pants" to get a booster, he said.

"I felt like a scumbag going in because everyone thinks I'm getting my first vaccine in August," he said of his recent trip to Walmart. "But there was no one else in there. I was literally the only person getting a vaccine."

Thomas, a New York City resident is in his early 30s, also decided to "upgrade" his vaccine, though he and asked that his name be changed in this story to avoid potential repercussions for getting an unauthorized booster. Because he'd recently spent a year in the UK, Thomas had gotten two doses of AstraZeneca's vaccine. But once back in the US, he got Pfizer's.

"I feel well-armored now," he added. "It feels good, actually - I'm mega-vaxxed!"

'I do feel a bit like a science experiment'

Before Bent got her extra shot, she checked to ensure she wouldn't deny someone else the chance to get vaccinated. San Francisco's vaccination rates have plummeted since April, and 78% of residents over age 12 are fully vaccinated. Bent had even seen reports of clinics throwing doses away - so she decided that boosting her immunity was the right thing to do.

"I went to Catholic school, so there's always an element of guilt," she said.

Katie Bent
Bent (left) with her three roommates. Katie Bent

She wasn't worried about adverse side effects, she said, since booster shots have already been authorized in other countries. Israel is offering boosters to older and immunocompromised citizens, and Germany and France intend to do the same starting next month.

The US could soon start administering boosters to vulnerable groups, too: In the next week or so, the FDA is expected to evaluate whether to allow boosters for immunocompromised people, The Washington Post reported. The agency also plans to create a strategy for rolling out boosters by early September, according to the Wall Street Journal. In California, Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital has already started allowing people who received J&J's vaccine to get a second shot of either Pfizer or Moderna.

Several public-health experts have also already chosen to get an extra mRNA dose - and discussed it publicly. Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan, tweeted in June that she got a Pfizer shot to "top off" the J&J vaccine she received in April. That same month, Jason Gallagher, an infectious-disease expert at Temple University, told Reuters that he got an extra Pfizer dose after participating in J&J's vaccine trial in November.

"This seems to be a relatively safe thing, or at least a thing that we don't have reason to think is unsafe," Bent said. "And not protecting myself against the Delta variant felt like a very definitively unsafe thing to do."

Thomas said he was also persuaded by preliminary studies that showed how a third dose increases antibody levels relative to a second dose.

"I do feel a bit like a science experiment, but it seems to be a science experiment that's showing positive results in trials, so I don't feel nervous," he said. "It's not like I'm injecting myself with alien blood."

Multi-vaxxers wanted to feel safer at restaurants and on planes

Steve Walz, head of international relations at Israel's Sheba Medical Center, is over 60, so he's authorized to receive a booster in Israel. His antibody test came back negative last month, suggesting that his immunity had waned since he got his two Pfizer shots in the winter.

But he worried about the effects of getting vaccinated three times in one year.

"You don't want to keep vaccinating yourself every six or seven months unless you absolutely are sure that long-term, you're going to be OK," Walz said.

He didn't feel comfortable flying internationally for work until his antibody levels were restored, though. So he got a booster on Friday.

Sparks, meanwhile, said he was more concerned about getting sick in his local community.

"When we moved to Denver from San Francisco, I felt like I was going into a COVID time machine," he said. "We wore our masks at a restaurant and people were like, 'If you're vaccinated, you know you don't have to wear that.'"

Andy Sparks
Andy Sparks got a Moderna booster after his J&J shot. Andy Sparks

Thomas' dilemma was different: AstraZeneca's shot isn't authorized in the US, and New York City will soon require proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, fitness centers, and other indoor venues.

"I don't think I'll be able to do anything in the US with this [AstraZeneca] jab," he said.

Getting his Pfizer shot required a bit of fibbing.

"They did ask, 'Have you had any non-FDA approved vaccines?'" Thomas said. "I lied and said 'no.'"

Booster side effects were mild

All the "multi-vaxxers" told Insider that they experienced mild side effects after their booster shots. Walz said he was tired for about 24 hours, and Thomas and Sparks both said their arms were tender.

"My girlfriend was laughing at me because I was complaining when I got the J&J vaccine and then I was like, 'Oh my god, this one's way worse,'" Sparks said.

Bent said she slept 15 hours after getting her second Pfizer dose. She compared the feeling to "when you've been sick for a while, and then the fever breaks and you know that you're on the mend."

But she added, jokingly: "I'm generally a fairly sleep-deprived person, so I don't know how much of that was just my other poor choices catching up with me."

She's happy with her decision to get boosted.

"I am not at all worried about people double dipping on shots," she said. "I am a lot worried about people who don't want to get even one."

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