Politics or protection? What’s behind the push for boosters?


Many Americans are clamoring for a booster dose of a COVID-19 vaccine after reports of rising numbers of breakthrough infections, and demand increased after the Biden administration said those shots would be offered starting on Sept. 20.

That plan, which was first announced on Aug. 18, has raised eyebrows because it comes in advance of regulatory reviews by the Food and Drug Administration and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those reviews are needed to determine whether third doses of these vaccines are effective or even safe. The move could have important legal ramifications for doctors and patients, too.

On Aug. 31, two high-level officials in the FDA’s Office of Vaccines Research and Review abruptly resigned amid reports that they were angry that the Biden administration was making decisions that should be left up to that agency.

So far, data show that the vaccines are highly effective at preventing the most severe consequences of COVID-19 – hospitalization and death – even regarding the Delta variant. The World Health Organization has urged wealthy nations such as the United States not to offer boosters so that the limited supply of vaccines can be directed to countries with fewer resources.

White House supports boosters

In a recent press briefing, Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, defended the move.

“You know, the booster decision, which you referenced ... was made by and announced by the nation’s leading public health officials, including Dr. Walensky; Dr. Fauci; Surgeon General Vivek Murthy; Dr. Janet Woodcock; the FDA acting commissioner, Dr. Francis Collins; Dr. Kessler; and others,” Mr. Zients said.

“And as our medical experts laid out, having reviewed all of the available data, it is in their clinical judgment that it is time to prepare Americans for a booster shot.”

He said a target date of Sept. 20 was announced so as to give states and practitioners time to prepare. He also said the move to give boosters was meant to help the United States stay ahead of a rapidly changing virus. Mr. Zients added that whether boosters will be administered starting on Sept. 20 depends on the FDA’s and CDC’s giving the go-ahead.

“Booster doses are going to be handled the same way all vaccines are handled,” said Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokesperson. “Companies will have to provide data to FDA. FDA will have to make a decision and authorize the use of those, and ACIP [the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices] will have to look at the evidence as well and make recommendations on top of FDA’s regulatory action,” she said.

Ms. Nordlund agreed that the planned Sept. 20 start date for boosters was something to which they aspired and was not necessarily set.

Historically, the FDA has needed at least 4 months to review a change to a vaccine’s approval, even on an accelerated schedule. Reviewers use that time to assess data regarding individual patients in a study, to review raw data, and essentially to check a drug company’s math and conclusions. The Biden administration’s timeline would shorten that review period from months to just a few weeks.


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