The Biden administration is recommending that Americans receive Covid-19 booster shots eight months after completing their first round of vaccination.
“We are prepared to offer booster shots for all Americans beginning the week of September 20 and starting 8 months after an individual’s second dose,” top administration health officials said in a statement Wednesday, attributing the change to the rise of the highly contagious Delta variant.
“Based on our latest assessment, the current protection against severe disease, hospitalization and death could diminish in the months ahead, especially among those who are at higher risk or were vaccinated during the earlier phases of the vaccination rollout,” added the group, whose members include President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, and the heads of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health.
The policy will apply to people who have received the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, and is contingent on authorization from the FDA and a review by CDC’s vaccine advisory committee. The administration officials said they anticipate offering booster shots to people who received the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine but are waiting for further data before officially making that recommendation.
The announcement comes after weeks of intense debate inside the top echelons of the Biden administration’s Covid-19 task force about whether new data on vaccine effectiveness over time suggested Americans needed booster shots. The deliberations coincided with a push by the administration to continue donating doses to lower- and middle-income countries that are still struggling to complete a first round of vaccinations.
In a meeting Sunday, Biden administration officials reviewed vaccine data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed protection from vaccines declined in recent months as the Delta variant took hold and infections began to rise across the country. A study tracking adults in New York found that vaccine effectiveness declined from 91.7 percent in early May to 79.8 percent by late July, according to a private administration briefing for public health experts. During the same period, the state saw a rise in infections attributable to the more transmissible Delta variant.
During the briefing, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky also cited data collected by the Mayo Clinic on the decreased effectiveness of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against infection from the Delta variant. The effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine dropped from 76 percent against earlier versions of Covid-19 to 42 percent against Delta. The Moderna vaccine’s effectiveness dropped from 86 percent to 76 percent against Delta.
Officials have also studied similar data from Israel which showed vaccine effectiveness against infection declined from about 95 percent in June to 64 percent in July as the Delta variant took over.
While the New York study found that vaccines still work well to prevent severe disease and hospitalizations, the data from the U.S. and abroad convinced Biden officials that Americans need boosters beginning this fall to complement other public health measures, such as masking and social distancing.
But even as the administration lays out plans for a second round of shots, more than 40 percent percent of the American population over the age of 12 is still not vaccinated. It’s not clear how the federal government will convince large portions of the country to not only sign up for their first set of shots but to return for a booster.
Biden officials did not provide details about how the booster shots would be distributed, but they stressed that vulnerable populations, including frontline health care workers and nursing home residents, should be at the front of the line. Both those groups were among the first to be vaccinated when shots became available late last year.
A total of 100 million doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are available now, according to two senior officials with knowledge of the situation. The government has contracted for an additional 400 million to be distributed as needed.