New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)

Committee supports COVID-19 boosters only for elderly, high-risk

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WASHINGTON — Dealing the White House a stinging setback, a government advisory panel overwhelmi­ngly rejected a plan Friday to give Pfizer COVID-19 booster shots across the board, and instead endorsed the extra dose only for those who are 65 or older or run a high risk of severe disease.

The twin votes represente­d a heavy blow to the Biden administra­tion’s sweeping effort, announced a month ago, to shore up nearly all Americans’ protection amid the spread of the highly contagious delta variant.

The decision was made by an influentia­l committee of outside experts who advise the Food and Drug Administra­tion.

In a surprising turn, the panel rejected, by a vote of 16-2, boosters for almost everyone. Members cited a lack of safety data on extra doses and also raised doubts about the value of mass boosters, rather than ones targeted to specific groups.

Then, in an 18-0 vote, it endorsed the extra shot for select portions of the U.S. population — namely, those most at risk from the virus.

That would help salvage part of the White House’s campaign but would still be a huge step back from the far-reaching plan proposed by the administra­tion a month ago to offer booster shots of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to practicall­y everybody eight months after they get their second dose.

Friday’s vote was just the first step in the process. The FDA itself is expected to make a decision on boosters in the next few days, but it usually follows the committee’s recommenda­tions.

The offering of boosters is also subject to approval by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A CDC advisory panel is expected to take up the question on Wednesday. The CDC has said it is considerin­g boosters for older people, nursing home residents and frontline health care workers, rather than all adults.

Separate FDA and CDC decisions will be needed in order for people who received the Moderna or J&J shots to get boosters.

During several hours of vigorous debate Friday, members of the panel questioned the value of offering boosters to almost everybody 16 and over.

“I don’t think a booster dose is going to significan­tly contribute to controllin­g the pandemic,” said Dr. Cody Meissner of Tufts University. “And I think it’s important that the main message we transmit is that we’ve got to get everyone two doses.”

Dr. Amanda Cohn of the CDC said: “At this moment it is clear that the unvaccinat­ed are driving transmissi­on in the United States.”

Scientists inside and outside the government have been divided in recent days over the need for boosters and who should get them, and the World Health Organizati­on has strongly objected to rich nations giving a third round of shots when poor countries don’t have enough vaccine for their first.

While research suggests immunity levels in those who have been vaccinated wane over time and boosters can reverse that, the Pfizer vaccine is still highly protective against severe illness and death, even amid the spread of the highly contagious delta variant.

Biden’s top health advisers, including the heads of the FDA and CDC, first announced plans for widespread booster shots in mid-August, targeting the week of Sept. 20 as an all-but-certain start date.

Some Americans, healthy or not, have managed to get boosters, in some cases simply by showing up and asking for a shot. And some health systems already are offering extra doses to high-risk people.

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