The United States will begin widely distributing COVID-19 booster shots next month and will recommend them for most Americans who have received one of the vaccines, according to several top federal health officials.
A joint statement from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, and Acting Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Janet Woodcock stated that people will need booster shots, starting eight months after they received their second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine.
Those who received the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine will likely need booster shots as well, they said, although more data are needed before making a formal recommendation. The J&J vaccine uses a more traditional adenovirus mechanism, whereas the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use mRNA technology.
“The available data make very clear that protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection begins to decrease over time following the initial doses of vaccination, and in association with the dominance of the Delta variant, we are starting to see evidence of reduced protection against mild and moderate disease,” the statement reads, referring to the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus that causes COVID-19.
As a result, federal agencies are now preparing to offer the booster doses starting on Sept. 20. Individuals who were fully vaccinated will likely be eligible for the third dose, according to the statement. That includes some health care workers, nursing home residents, and other senior citizens.
“Based on our latest assessment, the current protection against severe disease, hospitalization, and death could diminish in the months ahead, especially among those who are at higher risk or were vaccinated during the earlier phases of the vaccination rollout,” the statement reads. “For that reason, we conclude that a booster shot will be needed to maximize vaccine-induced protection and prolong its durability.”
The announcement comes after the White House COVID-19 press briefing on Aug. 18, during which health officials provided more information about the booster shots.
In the briefing, Walensky said the CDC analyzed data that suggested booster shots provided more protection against “severe disease, hospitalization, and death.” She noted that a study found that Pfizer’s vaccine effectiveness against infection dropped over several months, with effectiveness dropping to about 53 percent in July. She also said vaccines can protect against severe illness, but acknowledged that there’s “increased risk” for death and severe illness “among those who were vaccinated early.”
Murthy and COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zeints said during the briefing that the plan to distribute booster shots is contingent upon whether the FDA and CDC approve them for most Americans before Sept. 20. The CDC recommended booster doses for immunocompromised individuals last week, a day after the FDA authorized the boosters.
The move to recommend booster shots more widely is sure to spark criticism from the World Health Organization (WHO), which recently called on wealthy nations such as the United States to hold off on recommending third doses in lieu of providing vaccines to poorer nations with lower vaccination rates.
In July, WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus rebuked Pfizer and Moderna for focusing on developing and selling booster shots, arguing in a statement: “We’re making conscious choices right now not to protect those in most need.”
There has also been criticism that Pfizer and Moderna are pushing U.S. officials to quickly recommend boosters to make a profit. Both firms are predicted to reap billions of dollars in revenue from their COVID-19 vaccines in the coming years.
The federal officials appeared to preempt WHO criticism on Aug. 18, with Murthy suggesting it’s a false dichotomy to suggest that the United States can’t produce booster shots and distribute vaccine doses to poorer nations.
“We clearly see our responsibility to both,” he said.
Earlier this year, more than a dozen influential scientists told Reuters that recommending booster shots so soon may imperil the public’s confidence in the vaccine. Some scientists, including a former CDC director, also expressed concern about statements made by Pfizer executives that COVID-19 booster shots will be needed every 12 months.
“It’s completely inappropriate to say that we’re likely to need an annual booster, because we have no idea what the likelihood of that is,” Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who now leads the global public health initiative Resolve to Save Lives, told the news agency, referring to the Pfizer claim.