Instead of expanding eligibility for a fourth Covid-19 booster shot now, the Biden administration will push this fall to get Americans to take another booster vaccination that is predicted to better protect against the Omicron BA.5 subvariant of the coronavirus.
Pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna are expected to start rolling out the reformulated boosters, which are expected to be authorized for anyone 12 and older, in September.
The decision comes amid a surge in cases of the virus across the US – and Biden himself recently recovered from an infection.
Some of the administration’s top health experts, including presidential adviser Anthony Fauci and White House Covid coordinator Ashish Jha, had advocated for expanding eligibility for a second dose of the current booster because of the latest spread.
But public health officials worried that administering two different booster shots so close together could blunt their effectiveness.
“You can’t get a vaccine shot August 1 and get another vaccine shot September 15 and expect the second shot to do anything,” Shane Crotty, a virologist at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology, told the New York Times.
“You’ve got so much antibody around, if you get another dose, it won’t do anything.”
The decision means that adults over 50 and those who are immunocompromised remain the only ones authorized for a second booster, ie their fourth shot since the vaccine began being administered widely in 2021. Fewer than a third of people 50 and older who are eligible have gotten one, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Meanwhile, outside experts continued to stress that if you are eligible to get a second booster shot, you should get one.
“If you need a booster, get it now,” John Moore, a microbiology and immunology professor at Weill Cornell Medical college, told Reuters.
Officials also worried that it would be difficult and confusing to Americans to effectively run two different booster campaigns, one in the summer and one in the fall. Waiting until the fall to launch a booster campaign will also “increase trust,” said Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, to NPR.
“We can’t give a booster now and then again in 1.5 months or two months – that will decrease trust,” she said.
But by the time the fall comes around, the BA.5 subvariant may no longer be the dominant strain, Peter Hotez, dean of the Baylor College of Medicine National School of Tropical Medicine, said.
Americans who want to use available boosters now should have the option to do so if they want, said Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
“You’re talking about, you know, literally hundreds of millions of people who are at a higher risk than they need to be for months,” he told NPR.
The Biden administration has already ordered more than 170m doses of the new vaccines for the fall.
In June, the administration inked a $3.2bn deal with Pfizer to order 105m doses of the vaccine for a fall vaccination campaign, with an option to buy as many as 300m doses.
On Friday, Moderna announced it would provide 66m doses of its new vaccine to the government in a deal worth as much as $1.74bn. The government has the option of buying an additional 234m doses.
Both the new Pfizer and Moderna boosters would need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and recommended by the CDC before they are rolled out to Americans.