Top scientists from around the world, including experts from the FDA and the World Health Organization, dismissed the need for booster injections of the coronavirus vaccine on Monday.
In a review published in the leading medical journal The Lancet, scientists argued that booster shots are unnecessary in the general population as vaccines still remain highly effective in preventing serious illness and death. They also mentioned the urgent need to administer doses to unvaccinated people around the world to save lives and prevent the emergence of more dangerous variants.
The review comes as the United States approaches the Biden administration’s controversial start date for a booster launch, recommended eight months after the second individual shot of Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. The report also comes a week after the White House announced a massive push towards mandatory vaccination among nearly two-thirds of the U.S. workforce, as pockets of unvaccinated individuals continue to cause high numbers of hospitalizations and deaths nationwide.
The FDA’s external expert panel will hold a highly anticipated meeting this Friday to discuss Pfizer’s application for a booster dose.
The 18 co-authors of the Lancet review include Marion Gruber, director of the FDA vaccines office, and Philip Krause, her deputy at the agency, both of whom announced they would resign in the fall, reportedly in part due to of their opposition to the Biden administration’s recovery plan. The review was also written by several experts from the World Health Organization, who called for a global moratorium on booster shots in order to maximize vaccinations around the world, especially in developing countries, where vaccination rates remain very low.
The Lancet paper examines the current evidence on the protection afforded by existing vaccines. While the vaccines all offer less protection against infection with the Delta variant than the previously dominant Alpha, they still offer excellent protection against serious disease. And while the ability to prevent infection or even symptomatic disease may decline over time, the protection against serious illness appears to be strong so far.
Three CDC reports released last week confirmed these findings in most age groups, with a more significant decline in people aged 75 and over. One of the studies looked at nearly 570,000 cases of COVID-19 in the United States from April to July, showing that unvaccinated people were nearly 5 times more likely to be infected and more than 10 times more likely to be hospitalized or die than to people who have received a vaccine.
“Current evidence, therefore, does not appear to show the need for enhancement in the general population, where efficacy against severe disease remains high,” the Lancet authors wrote.
Data from Israel, which has already started launching booster doses, showed increased protection against infections and serious illness after a third shot of the Pfizer vaccine, originally given in two doses. But the Lancet authors noted that data was only collected for one week after the booster dose was administered, and it is unclear how long this protection will last.
The Lancet authors argued that boosters may eventually be needed if immunity wanes over time, but more research is needed to determine when this will be needed. For now, they argued, there is a more urgent need to administer existing doses among the unvaccinated. They also suggested that booster doses designed specifically against the major circulating variants of the coronavirus could be more potent and longer-lasting.
“While some benefit may eventually be gained from the enhancement, it will not outweigh the benefits of providing initial protection to the unvaccinated,” the authors wrote. “If vaccines are distributed where they would do best, they could accelerate the end of the pandemic by inhibiting the further evolution of the variants.”
Mike Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies program, condemned the launch of booster vaccinations on tough terms last month. “We are planning to distribute extra life jackets to people who already have life jackets, while we are leaving other people to drown without a single life jacket,” Ryan said. “This is reality.”
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