COVID-19 booster shots are now available to all adults in the United States, after Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky signed off on the recommendations of an agency advisory panel on Friday.
“After critical scientific evaluation, today’s unanimous decision carefully considered the current state of the pandemic, the latest vaccine effectiveness data over time, and review of safety data from people who have already received a COVID-19 primary vaccine series and booster,” said Dr. Walensky in a statement.
“Booster shots have demonstrated the ability to safely increase people’s protection against infection and severe outcomes and are an important public health tool to strengthen our defenses against the virus as we enter the winter holidays. Based on the compelling evidence, all adults over 18 should now have equitable access to a COVID-19 booster dose,” she added.
The actions by the CDC will go a long way toward boosting the government’s campaign to shore up protection and staying ahead of rising coronavirus outbreaks that could worsen during the holidays.
The most recent action clarifies who is eligible, allowing anybody 18 and older to choose either a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine booster shot six months after their last dosage, regardless of which vaccine they received first.
All three COVID-19 vaccines currently in use in the United States continue to provide excellent protection against serious illness, including hospitalization and death, but protection against infection can decline with time.
Previously, the government had only approved boosters of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine for vulnerable groups such as the elderly and persons with chronic illnesses.
Pfizer petitioned the FDA last week to extend that decision to everyone, citing new findings from a 10,000-person study. Moderna made the same request earlier this week. The FDA determined there was enough data from studies and real-world booster use to support both Pfizer and Moderna’s expansions.
FDA vaccine chief Dr. Peter Marks said, “Streamlining the eligibility criteria and making booster doses available to all individuals 18 years of age and older will also help to eliminate confusion about who may receive a booster dose and ensure booster doses are available to all who may need one.”
The decision to expand comes as the number of new COVID-19 cases has progressively increased over the last two weeks, particularly in places where the colder weather has driven people indoors.
Some states did not wait for federal officials to act after being alarmed by these troubling patterns. In the last week, Utah and Massachusetts became the latest states to announce that boosters would be available to all adults.
The Biden administration’s original goal was to have boosters for everyone. However, based on the vaccinations’ sustained effectiveness in most age groups, a panel of FDA experts voted unanimously against that suggestion in September. Instead, they advocated for boosters only for the most vulnerable.
There had been significant dissatisfaction within the White House and among the president’s allies that the lengthy and public regulatory process contributed to misinformation and uncertainty about the boosters, perhaps putting the country in jeopardy as the holiday season approaches.
Administration officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, continued to make a case for more widespread use of boosters, pointing out that even minor infections in children can result in “long COVID” and other problems.
“I don’t know of any other vaccine where we only worry about keeping people out of the hospital,” said Fauci at a briefing Wednesday.
However, the administration promised that scientists would make the final choice. The FDA did not engage its advisers this time because scientific difficulties underlying Pfizer’s and Moderna’s boosters “do not raise questions that would benefit from additional discussion,” according to the FDA.
Regulators decided that the overall benefits of increased protection outweighed the dangers of uncommon adverse effects from Moderna’s or Pfizer’s vaccines, such as a type of heart inflammation that affects predominantly young males.
Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech suggested that broader boosters could aid in the control of infections during a crucial time.
BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin told reporters, “We have absolutely no chance in the current situation to control the pandemic without providing boosters to everyone.”
Even when the extra-contagious delta variation increased, the companies tested 10,000 people of all ages and discovered that a booster restored protection against symptomatic infections to roughly 95%. It’s too early to tell whether the high degree of protection will stay longer after a third shot than it did after the second, but Sahin said the companies would keep an eye on it.
The U.K. recently revealed real-world data demonstrating a similar increase in protection once boosters were made available to middle-aged and older persons. Israel has credited widespread vaccinations with aiding in the country’s fight against a new wave of the virus.
More than 195 million Americans have received two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccinations or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. A boost has already been given to over 30 million people.
Prior to the extension, those who had the Pfizer or Moderna immunizations were eligible for a third dose if they were elderly or at high risk of COVID-19 because of health issues, their jobs, or their living conditions.
Because the single J&J shot hadn’t shown to have a lasting effect as long as its two-dose competitors, any J&J recipient could get a booster shot two months after their initial shot.
The FDA previously determined that those who need a booster immunization can have a different brand than they got the first time.
Some experts are concerned that the focus on booster doses would obstruct efforts to reach the 60 million Americans eligible for immunizations but have yet to receive them.
There is also growing worry that wealthy countries are providing extensive booster shots, whereas impoverished countries have only been able to vaccinate a small percentage of their population.
Dr. David Dowdy of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said, “In terms of the No. 1 priority for reducing transmission in this country and throughout the world, this remains getting people their first vaccine series.”