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


‘FDA in a very difficult position’

After the FDA approves, the ACIP of the CDC must meet to review the evidence and make recommendations on the use of the boosters in the United States.

Pfizer says it completed its submission for a supplemental biologics license application to the FDA on Aug. 27. To meet a Sept. 20 timeline, the entire process would have to be completed within 3 weeks.

“I don’t think that was handled, you know, ideally,” said Peter Lurie, MD, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest and former associate commissioner of public health strategy and analysis at the FDA.

“It puts FDA in a very difficult position,” Dr. Lurie said. “It’s almost as if the decision has been made and they’re just checking a box, and that is, you know, contrary to the what FDA – at least the internal people at FDA – have been trying to do for ages.”

He said the agency took great pains with the emergency use authorizations and the full approvals of the vaccines to work as rapidly but thoroughly as possible. They did not skip steps.

“I think all of that reflected very well on the agency,” Dr. Lurie said. “And I think it worked out well in terms of trust in the vaccines.”

Although additional doses of vaccine are expected to be safe, little is known about side effects or adverse events after a third dose.

“It’s critical to wait for additional data and regulatory allowance for booster doses,” Sara Oliver, MD, a member of the CDC’s epidemic intelligence service, said in an Aug. 30 presentation to the ACIP, which is charged with making recommendations for use of all vaccines in the United States.

Boosters already being given

But after the White House announced that boosters were on the way, many people are not waiting.

Many health care practitioners and pharmacies have already been giving people third doses of vaccines, even if they are not among the immunocompromised – the group for which the shots are currently approved.

“You can walk into a pharmacy and ask for a third dose. Depending on which pharmacy you go to, you may get it,” said Helen Talbot, MD, associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn., and a member of the ACIP.

She says she has a friend who recently went for a checkup and was offered a third dose. His physician is already giving extra doses to everyone who is older than 65.

Dr. Talbot said that in fairness, pharmacies in the United States are throwing away doses of vaccine because they are expiring before they get used.

“Many of us may or may not be ready to give a third dose but would rather give someone a third dose than throw a vaccine away,” she said.

Consequences of a third shot

But giving or getting a third dose before approval by the FDA may have legal consequences.

In the ACIP meeting on Aug. 30, Demetre Daskalakis, MD, who leads vaccine equity efforts at the CDC, cautioned that physicians who give extra doses of the vaccine before the FDA and CDC have signed off may be in violation of practitioner agreements with the federal government and might not be covered by the federal PREP Act. The PREP Act provides immunity from lawsuits for people who administer COVID-19 vaccines and compensates patients in the event of injury. Patients who get a vaccine and suffer a rare but serious side effect may lose the ability to claim compensation offered by the act.

“Many of us gasped when he said that,” Dr. Talbot said, “because that’s a big deal.”

The ACIP signaled that it is considering recommending boosters for a much narrower slice of the American population than the Biden administration has suggested.

They said that so far, the data point only to the need for boosters for seniors, who are the patients most likely to experience breakthrough infections that require hospitalization, and health care workers, who are needed now more than ever and cannot work if they’re sick.

In a White House news briefing Aug. 31, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, was asked about the ACIP’s conclusions and whether she believed there were enough data to recommend booster shots for most Americans 8 months after their last dose.

“The ACIP did not review international data that actually has led us to be even more concerned about increased risk of vaccine effectiveness waning against hospitalization, severe disease, and death. They will be reviewing that as well,” she said.

A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.


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