When an FDA review panel Friday unanimously recommended approving booster shots for the medically vulnerable and people over 65, they did so after sifting through data that increasingly shows boosters help prevent new infections, serious illness and death. When the same panel refused to advocate boosters for the general population, it did so because it's not clear yet that additional help against COVID is crucially needed.
The Food and Drug Administration does not have to follow the lead of advisory panels but often does. This time the panel got it half right.
The federal government should make booster shots available for those who want them. The elderly, those at high risk, and those in close contact with those at high risk should be strongly encouraged to take another jab.
Testing in the United States shows people fully vaccinated with Pfizer’s version achieved 96.2% effectiveness in preventing transmission of symptomatic or severe COVID seven days after their second shot, but that dropped to 90.1% after two to four months and 83.7% after four months. Even against the more easily transmitted delta variant, effectiveness was over 90% early, then declined.
In Israel widespread vaccinations began months earlier than in the U.S., offering a glimpse into our future. There, the risk of a "breakthrough" infection of a vaccinated person is 2.26 times higher for those who completed vaccination in January than those who did so in April. The danger of severe COVID is 1.7 times higher for those vaccinated in January than those vaccinated in March.
The booster restores resistance to symptomatic infection to 95%, with no more side effects than the second shot. But studies also show that the original Pfizer doses still offer considerable resistance, particularly to hospitalization or death, even eight months after a second shot.
The argument that boosters only stymie minor infections but won't reduce hospitalizations and deaths increasingly appears to be untrue. And the assertion that giving boosters to Americans keeps doses from the rest of the world is contradicted by the fact that the United States is donating doses to other nations and projects a surplus of 608 million doses by the end of 2021.
Scientists are constantly learning more about the virus and the vaccines, refining their understanding and updating their guidance. That's a reason the messaging from the White House has been confusing, but it's no excuse. Making policy based on new data collected in real time is difficult, but President Joe Biden hasn’t helped by demanding the boosters before the scientists weighed in.
The data does not yet show that the booster is, like the first and second shot, crucial to keeping ourselves and others healthy. It shows it’s helpful. For now, the booster should not be mandated.
But people in the U.S. who want a booster ought to be able to get one.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.