FDA and CDC authorize additional COVID booster shots for some Americans

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorsed a second booster shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines for those over 50. It also applies to younger people with badly weakened immune systems. The move came as vaccinations have slowed markedly and as a new version of the omicron variant is spreading. William Brangham joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We return now to the announcement today from the FDA and the CDC, that they are authorizing booster shots for certain Americans.

    William Brangham has been following all this, and he joins me now.

    So, hello, William.

    Both these agencies authorizing these shots for people who are over 50, and all of those who may have a compromised immune system. What was the explanation they gave for this move today?

  • William Brangham:

    The FDA and the CDC said that they're trying to do everything they can to protect the people who are most at risk of the serious consequences of COVID-19, that, also and the fact there's this subvariant of Omicron that is spreading here in the United States, but has also been causing a lot of problems overseas.

    And so, while the FDA today tried to stress that the vaccines are still working in the most important ways — they're keeping us out of the hospital and they're keeping vaccinated people from dying, for the most part — there is some evidence that that protection starts to wane at about four months, especially for older people and immunocompromised people.

    And so they also cited some Israeli studies showing that a fourth booster was protecting people and boosting their immunity. So, given that and this subvariant, the officials said, OK, we're going to authorize Moderna and Pfizer for a fourth booster.

    Separately, the CDC said today that, for people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and had been boosted with that, that they might want to consider a booster that's of an mRNA vaccine, so a Pfizer or Moderna shot for those people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, and, William, we are reading there's real disagreement inside these agencies among experts over whether this is the right thing to do, some of them saying that the evidence is not conclusive. Explain what that argument is.

  • William Brangham:

    No, that is exactly right, Judy. This was definitely not a universally acclaimed move today by the CDC and the FDA.

    Some people, like Dr. Bob Wachter at UCSF — we have had him on this show many times — he says he welcomes this move, he's going to get the booster himself. He's a mid-60s, healthy man. And he's going to recommend it to his patients.

    But there are others, many others, like Dr. Carlos del Rio from Emory, who we have also had on the show, who argues that the evidence is really not clear, as you mentioned. They're not as confident about these — this Israeli data, because it's fairly preliminary.

    And they say that, maybe for older people, maybe for immunocompromised people, but for the — but for 50-year-olds and people younger, that they're still getting good protection, and that that's not necessarily important.

    Also, many of those people point out that the virus is still quite low in the country right now. And so you might want to try to time your booster for when and if a surge starts to occur. That's complicated for a lot of people to do.

    But, remember, if you do get this booster, there is going to be some initial protection after about a week, but then it too will start to wane after three, four or five months. So, perhaps those people are arguing, maybe you want to wait.

    And so there is some evidence also that spreading those doses out is beneficial. So, again, a complicated reaction to this move today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, William, it sounds like what you're — what you're describing is what could be a regular cycle of recurring booster shots needed to deal with COVID. Is that what people think could be in our future?

  • William Brangham:

    That is what officials are hinting at.

    There was talk today at the FDA presser that, perhaps as soon as next fall, people might be up for another booster. I mean, the long-term hope is that we don't have to be doing two or three shots every year and that this could be more like a COVID booster like you get a flu shot, once a year.

    Some of that, though, depends on what this virus is doing. Some of that depends on whether we can do a better job here in the U.S. of getting more people vaccinated and, equally as importantly, getting a vaccine out to the rest of the world, so we can head off the next variant from emerging.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, I know this is something that people really do want to understand, especially since this has been going on for as long as it has.

    William Brangham, thank you very much.

  • William Brangham:

    You're welcome, Judy.

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