By LAURAN NEERGAARD and MIKE STOBBE
The U.S. vaccination drive against COVID-19 stands on the verge of a major new phase: Government advisers on Thursday recommended booster doses of Pfizer’s vaccine for millions of Americans.
This, despite concern among some experts that the extra shots will do little to slow the pandemic.
The advisory panel to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the extra doses for people 65 and older, nursing home residents, and people who are 50 to 64 with underlying medical conditions. It also said boosters can be offered to people 18 to 49 with underlying conditions.
The shots would be given at least six months after the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
This comes nearly 24 hours after the Food and Drug Administration signed off on extra shots of the Pfizer formula for a broad swath of Americans: those 65 and older, people at high risk of severe illness, and health care workers and others in danger of becoming infected on the job.
The widespread dispensing of the boosters would represent an important new phase in the nation’s vaccination drive. Britain and Israel are already rolling out a third round of shots over strong objections from the World Health Organization that poor countries don’t have enough for their initial doses.
The priority still is vaccinating the unvaccinated “here in America and around the world,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told the meeting.
She acknowledged that the data on boosters “are not perfect.” “Yet collectively they form a picture for us,” she said, “and they are what we have in this moment to make a decision about the next stage in this pandemic.”
Even after the CDC panel's decision, millions more Americans still will face confusion -- those who received Moderna or Johnson & Johnson shots early in the vaccine rollout. The government still hasn’t considered boosters for those brands and has no data on whether it’s safe or effective to mix-and-match and give those people a Pfizer shot.
The COVID-19 vaccines used in the U.S. still offer strong protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death, but immunity against milder infection appears to be waning months after people’s initial vaccination.
The FDA rejected a sweeping Biden administration plan announced a month ago to offer boosters to the general population, instead embracing a more targeted approach for now. Acting FDA Commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock cautioned that booster decisions could very well change as real-world data come in.
“As we learn more about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, including the use of a booster dose, we will continue to evaluate the rapidly changing science and keep the public informed,” Woodcock said.
The CDC advisory panel had been considering boosters for senior citizens, nursing home residents and front-line health care workers, rather than all adults. But the committee’s two-day meeting opened on Wednesday with many members warning that the priority of the vaccination campaign should be protection against severe disease, not infection.
They also wrestled with how to tell when a booster is needed. While an extra dose revs up numbers of virus-fighting antibodies, those naturally wane over time and no one knows how long the antibody boost from a third Pfizer dose will last -- or how much protection it really adds since the immune system also forms additional defenses after vaccination.
The U.S. has already authorized third doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for certain people with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients and transplant recipients. Other Americans, healthy or not, have managed to get boosters, in some cases simply by asking.