The White House announced Wednesday that most Americans will need booster shots eight months after receiving their second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines in order to combat the more transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus.
The nation’s top health care officials said in a joint statement that although the vaccines are highly effective, data shows that their protection lessens over time, meaning that fully vaccinated individuals might be more susceptible to mild and moderate disease.
“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. For that reason, we conclude that a booster shot will be needed to maximize vaccine-induced protection and prolong its durability,” a group of eight officials, including infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said in the statement.
Boosters will be available beginning Sept. 20 for people who are eight months out from their last shot. Jeff Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, said at a news conference Wednesday that it would be “just as easy” to get a booster as it was to get the first two shots.
For those who received the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a booster shot is likely, but the company has not yet completed a clinical trial evaluating the effectiveness of an additional dose.
Several officials spoke at the news conference of the need to “stay ahead of this virus.”
“If you wait for something bad to happen before you respond to it, you find yourselves considerably behind your real full capability of being responsive,” Fauci said.
Nursing home residents, health care workers and emergency respondents will likely be prioritized as they were late last year when the Food and Drug Administration issued emergency approval to distribute the vaccines. The agency has yet to fully approve any of the three COVID-19 vaccines currently being distributed across the country, but it is expected to grant the Pfizer drug full approval this fall.
The booster shot announcement was expected, and it has already been met with strong criticism from the World Health Organization and those who point out the extraordinary difficulty that poor nations have had in obtaining and distributing even one round of shots. Booster shots “will exacerbate inequities by driving up demand and consuming scarce supply,” the WHO said in a statement earlier this month.
The panel of U.S. health experts appeared to acknowledge the criticism in their statement, which emphasized “the ongoing urgency of vaccinating the unvaccinated in the U.S. and around the world.”
“Nearly all the cases of severe disease, hospitalization, and death continue to occur among those not yet vaccinated at all,” their statement read.
Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said at Wednesday’s news conference that he does “not accept the idea that we have to choose between America and the world.” Zients had a similar message, telling reporters that “to end this pandemic, we have to protect the American people, and we have to continue to do more and more to vaccinate the world.”
Both officials pointed to U.S. efforts to help expand manufacturing capabilities in undervaccinated parts of the world. Limited supply of key materials, however, has presented a hurdle to ramping up manufacturing further.
Public health experts say that helping the entire world get vaccinated against COVID-19 is essential to putting the pandemic behind us, because when the virus is allowed to spread unchecked, it has more opportunity to mutate into new and potentially even more dangerous versions of itself.
One of those variants, delta, is currently driving up case counts in much of the United States. The picture is particularly grim in the South, and hospitals in Arkansas and Louisiana have reported running dangerously low on room in their intensive care units. Unvaccinated patients make up the vast majority of those who are seriously ill.
More than 36 million people have had documented cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., and more than 620,000 have died since the start of the coronavirus crisis.
“Our vaccines continue to offer the best protection against severe COVID illness,” Walensky said Wednesday. “While we are still learning about how these vaccines perform over time and how long they will last against emerging variants, one thing is very clear: Getting vaccinated can keep you out of the hospital. Getting vaccinated can save your life.”