Biden administration health officials are expected to recommend COVID-19 booster shots for all Americans who received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, regardless of age, eight months after they received the second shot, a source familiar with the plans confirmed to USA TODAY.
The news, which will be announced as soon as this week, comes as the delta variant rages across the country. It also comes amid anxieties about the Pfizer vaccine’s waning immunity and the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of booster vaccines for immunocompromised people.
The official spoke to USA TODAY on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly.
Booster shots will begin as early as mid- to late September once the FDA formally approves vaccines. The action is expected for the Pfizer shot in the coming weeks. As long as any of the vaccines are issued under an emergency use authorization, no one but the FDA can recommend boosters.
The change comes because of data released from Israel and the Mayo Clinic, among others, said Dr. Eric Topol, vice president for research at Scripps Research in La Jolla, California, and a national expert on the use of data in medical research.
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Data published by Israel’s Ministry of Health shows that protection from the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine dropped off precipitously after six months, down to 40-50% effectiveness against infection, he said. The vaccine was still highly protective against serious illness and death, but not against milder COVID-19.
“There’s still a risk for long COVID, and people can get quite ill from symptomatic infections, you can’t gloss over that,” he said.
Reports from Qatar and the Mayo Clinic are seeing the same effect, he said.
“It gets down to the 40 to 50% effectiveness range, whereas it used to be 95%,” he said.
Why the mRNA vaccines become less effective over time isn’t known, but Topol believes it’s probably because of the short dosing schedule the United States chose. The two-dose vaccine series was given three weeks apart for the Pfizer shots and four weeks for Moderna.
The United States used the spacing that Pfizer and Moderna used in their trials because that’s the data that was available. The short spacing might not have allowed the memory B and T cells in the body to develop as robustly as they would if the interval had been longer.
“This might not have happened if the spacing had been eight to 12 weeks. That’s what Canada, the United Kingdom and Scotland did,” Topol said.
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Adding booster shots raises thorny moral questions as the world continues to be ravaged by COVID-19 and few countries have access to enough vaccines for their people. Given that global inequity, having Americans get a third dose while so many have had none is problematic.
Dr. William Moss, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has proposed that the United States donate doses for every booster dose that’s given.
“I would love to see the Biden administration say we’re going to donate 10 doses for every booster dose we give,” he said. “It’s a visible way of showing we understand there’s an issue here, and this is how we’re going to address it.”